Talking to Kids about Suicide
Parents in our area were devastated yesterday to learn of the death of an 8th grader from a wonderful local private school. Although we don't know the cause of death yet, articles about the event have noted that the boy was under a lot of pressure to get schoolwork done. From my reading, this has so far been noted as the ONLY contributing factor to this boy's death.
Many, many children and teens are under pressure to get their schoolwork done, to get good grades, to get into the best colleges. Are they are risk? How can we talk to them about what happened to this boy and what they should do if they feel overwhelmed with the pressures they are facing?
The first thing we must emphasize is that suicide (if this boy in fact took his own life) is caused by multiple factors. School pressure can be one factor in teen suicide, but, there are typically many others. A major one is the presence of psychiatric illness -- 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from a psychiatric disorder including depression and substance use. Hopelessness is also associated with suicide -- people who feel that their lot in life will never improve are at heightened risk. Furthermore, in the six months prior to committing suicide, individuals have typically experienced a number of stressors ranging from interpersonal conflict to interpersonal loss and/or rejection. Again, it is generally not one, isolated event that leads to suicide.
When I speak to my patients about this sad case this week, I would like to emphasize that simply being stressed out about school does not make people commit suicide. There is almost always more to the story.
What else do I want kids to know?
I want kids to know that they can always talk to their parents about "bad things" -- even if they think it is the worst thing in the world. Parents WILL get over intense anger at a bad choice, but they will never get over losing their child.
I want kids to know that things always improve, even when it seems life is unfixable. Middle schoolers and high schoolers feel things very intensely and can act impulsively. I want to teach kids that feelings come and then they go. We can surf bad feelings, wait them out, and generally life improves.
I want kids to know that no one is perfect....even the kids at school who seem to "have it all". Most kids have a struggle -- maybe a learning problem, or anxiety, or a family issue. I wish that kids were more open with each other about these struggles. We all have something we are working on and that is part of life. The less we hide, the more open we are, the better off we all will be.
What else has come up in your discussions with your kids about this tragic loss?
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I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.