The first time I tried to take my life I was 17 years old. I was a junior in high school — a straight A student bounding toward what should have been a successful senior year — and while, on paper, things looked good, I looked good, the reality of my life was different. Very different.
I was lonely and felt helpless, hopeless, and pathetic, and I decided I wanted to die. I needed to die, and so I took some pills — several dozen pills, which I washed down with a can of Coke.
But something happened that day and, instead of dying, I woke up. Alive.
And while a lot has changed since that day — while decades have passed since I last made an attempt — I will talk to my daughter about suicide.
I will tell her my daughter about my struggles with suicide.
Why? Because, on average, 123 people die by suicide every day. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth and young adults, and for every completed suicide there are at least 25 other attempts. However, many believe talking about suicide can/will lead to suicide, so they stay mum on the matter.
Suicide remains a taboo topic.
Unfortunately, silence breeds shame. Shame breeds contempt and confusion, and all three breed fear and stigma, and, according to the American Association of Suicidology the best thing we can do to prevent suicide is to talk about suicide. Talking to teens about suicide “gives them the opportunity to express thoughts and feelings they may have been keeping secret.” Having a vulnerable and open discussion gives teens the “freedom to confide their pain,” and it gives parents, teachers, friends, and caregivers an opportunity to intervene.
But how do you begin talking about suicide? Well, you begin slowly. Gradually. You talk to your child about suicide just as you would about sex, drugs, or alcohol — in a thoughtful and age-appropriate way.
First and foremost, remember: timing is everything. If possible, talk to your child about suicide before they hear about suicide on the Internet, on TV, or at school and pick a time when you have the best chance of getting your child’s attention. Perhaps over dinner, or on a long car ride.
Start your conversation by acknowledging the elephant in the room, i.e. acknowledge that this is a hard and uncomfortable conversation — and it may be for both of you.
Have a reference point/starting point for the discussion. For example, “I was reading in the paper XYZ” or “I was watching this television program 13 Reasons Why and was wondering if you knew about it.”
Speak to your child in a clear and direct manner, using the word suicide.
Avoid language which further stigmatizes suicide and may hurt your child if they have suicidal thoughts or feelings, i.e. do not say “I cannot understand why anyone would attempt suicide” or “it’s just so crazy to XYZ.” Instead, focus on using language which is compassionate and empathetic.
Ask your child for their thoughts and feelings, i.e. “what do you think about suicide? Is it something that any of your friends talk about? Have you ever thought about it?”
Listen to what your child has to say without judgment or shame, even if your child says “I’ve thought about death” or “I felt that way before.”
Keep the line of communication open and remember: a single conversation is not a completed conversation. As your child grows, this topic will need to be revisited numerous times.
That said, when should you begin talking about suicide? I don’t know. No child grows the same, or develops the same, and while I learned about death early on — my grandfather passed in elementary school, my father passed in middle school, and I was suicidal by my first year in high school — many of my peers didn’t face such harsh realities until their junior or senior year.
Some didn’t face death until college.
So while I wish someone would have spoken to me about suicide when I was 12 or 13 — when the thoughts first started, when I felt like I was losing my mind — my daughter may not be ready to learn about it until later. I won’t know until the time is right.
But whenever that time arrives, I will talk to my daughter openly and honestly about my life, my story, and my struggles with suicide because I want my daughter to know that sometimes emotions can seem overwhelming. Feelings can become too raw, too intense, too real and that can be maddening. It can make you feel crazy and completely alone. But there is help. There is hope and — in my home — I will be a beacon of light for my daughter. I will guide her through the darkness with an open ear and an open heart, and if that means being comfortable with being uncomfortable, so be it because she matters.
Every life matters.