Talking To Kids About Suicide And Mental Illness

by Lea Grover
Originally Published: 
talking to kids about suicide
Branimir76 / iStock

I was 14 when I tried to take my own life.

It wasn’t my first attempt, but it was the first when I knew what I was doing. My first attempt had been when I was 8 years old. I suffered from chronic insomnia, and as most parents probably would, my mother had given up on getting me to sleep. No amount of warm milk, quiet music, calming baths, or slow wind-downs had worked. On nights I came to her, complaining of my inability to sleep at 3 in the morning, she resorted to tucking me in on the couch, away from my sleeping sister, handing me a book and a shot of peach schnapps with the instructions, “Sip very, very slowly,” and going back to bed herself.

I didn’t know I was depressed, so nobody else had any way to know either. I came home from school crying most days, but I was otherwise a pretty happy kid. I just couldn’t sleep. On the night of that first attempt, I was exhausted and miserable, and miserable about being exhausted, and it occurred to me that sleeping must be a lot like being dead. So I climbed out of bed, and instead of bothering my mother, I went to the kitchen and removed her largest knife from the rack.

I stood in the kitchen with the tip of her knife pressed against my chest for what felt like ages, then put it away and went back to bed to wait out the dawn. I was too scared of actually pushing it into my chest. Fortunately for me, I was a pain-averse child.

I’m a parent now, and my children are nearing the age at which my depression struck. The idea of not knowing what’s happening inside their heads is terrifying, and there is no knowing. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I had a word to put to the feelings I was experiencing, and by then the warning signs I was no doubt exhibiting to my parents were so thoroughly integrated into my personality as to be almost indistinguishable.

Was I withdrawn? Or was I merely a bookish kid? Was I disinterested in the world around me, or was I bored by a school that didn’t meet my needs? I don’t blame my parents for not noticing these warning signs. One of the most sinister parts of depression is that you are compelled by your own disease to hide it.

So how do you know?

The truth is that children as young as 8 do kill themselves. In fact, the second most common cause of death for children ages 10 to 18 is suicide10-year-old children.

How do you know?

The horror is there is often no way to know, and worse, when you do know, there are often no resources for you. But there are options.

When I wonder what I might be able to do for my children someday, I think back on what I wish my parents had done for me.

I wish that when I was a kid, younger than the 8-year-old I was who nearly stabbed herself in the chest, my parents had talked to me about mental illness. I wish they had told me that it’s okay, that it’s nobody’s fault if your brain gets sick, and that there are ways to deal with it.

By the time my parents did eventually take me to therapy, it was as though we’d made a weird pact not to discuss why, or what happened in therapy. And I lied to my therapist. After all, it’s what my depression told me to do.

I wish my parents had told me about going to therapy themselves, or bought me books about kids who went to therapy, long before it was something I needed for myself. I wish my parents had told me that I wasn’t a monster for having monstrous thoughts, and that it was part of getting them out of my head to talk about them. Together.

Now that my children are coming up on the age I was when my depression struck, I am trying to have these conversations, and it’s hard. It’s hard to tell them that I’m sick, sick in a way they cannot see, but that I live with every day. It’s hard to tell them that they have a family history of mental illness, because it is frightening. It’s hard to tell them I go to therapy. But I do these things, because none of them are as hard as burying one of my children would be.

Whether or not you have a history of mental illness, talk to your children. Let them know that, while feelings like hopelessness, ennui, and irrational anger are normal in small doses, if they feel that way a lot of the time, they can get help. Let them know they never have to be ashamed of a disease.

Let them know depression is the leading cause of disability for our entire planet, and it’s real, and it’s important to ask for help, to ask you for help, and that you will always help them.

Learn the warning signs for depression and suicide, and talk to your kids. Talk to them before you have to talk to them. And most importantly of all, listen.

You can help be the Voice to #StopSuicide. September 5 to 11 is National Suicide Prevention Week. To learn more, visit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

If you are currently having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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