Pandemic, Stress and Suicidal Thoughts
Anna Usher is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate that specializes in working with children and teens.
The year 2020 was full of uncertainty and events that caused significant increases in need for mental health support. Children, adolescents and teens are going through one of the largest changes that they have ever or potentially will ever experience in their lifetime. For some students, this meant losing their interactions with peers, losing access to sports or hobbies and perhaps losing their sense of safety in the community. Children, adolescents and teens are experiencing changes around them without having any sense of control, which could leave them feeling anxious, disappointed, angry and even depressed. For some, this could lead to thoughts of suicide.
According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death among high school-aged youths age 14-18. In 2019, it was found that one in five youths had suicidal thoughts, one in six made a plan for suicide and one in eleven made an attempt. In looking at this data, it is not uncommon for children, adolescents and teens to experience suicidal thoughts.
Is this something that you are going through right now with your child?
Hearing that your child, adolescent or teen is in a space where he or she is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm can be really hard. As a parent, it is normal to feel a sense of fear, sadness and anxiety when thinking about what is to come from these thoughts. How a parent or helping individual responds to this news can be pivotal. Your child is being courageous in sharing these feelings and it may feel very uncomfortable for him or her to share. One of the best things that your child is doing is coming forth to begin the conversation and talk about these thoughts and feelings. Parents have the ability to be in a helping role in this situation and make a huge impact on how this child processes their feelings and copes with them. Allowing your child to openly discuss these feelings in the absence of interruption, judgement or even attempting to fix this “problem” can be instrumental.
How can I best support my child who might be experiencing suicidal thoughts?
- Differentiate between thoughts and plans
A suicidal thought is exactly what is sounds like- just a thought. Thoughts do not always equate having a plan of action to complete suicide. Some examples of common suicidal thoughts that some individuals have include “I wish I were dead”, “I just want it all to stop” or “I wish I had never been born”. Differentiating between a suicidal thought and creating a plan for suicide is an important step. A plan would be indicated when an individual expresses that he or she has been having thoughts of suicide and have an idea of how he or she would complete it. If an individual expresses a plan for suicide, a safety plan will be put in place (if he or she is already being seen by a mental health professional) and it is recommended to be seen by a medical professional for an evaluation.
- Have open and honest conversations about the normalization of mental health
When children grow up hearing of courageous people coming forward with stories of suffering, pain and hardship, they are more likely to also share their inner struggles. Likewise, if parents or influential role models in their lives are having conversations early on about mental health, safety and suicide, children are more likely to share if they begin having these thoughts. Lastly, it is important to note that bringing up topics such as these will not induce these thoughts. So don’t be afraid to have these discussions.
- Practice active and reflective listening
This can be as simple as nodding your head, asking questions along the way or simply reflecting back what you’ve heard for clarification. This will help your child to feel as though you are listening intentionally and wanting to better understand how they are feeling at that moment.
- Validate his or her feelings
Some ideas of validating responses that parents can have in response to hearing that a child is having suicidal thoughts could be:
“Help me to understand how you’re feeling”
“I can see how you might be feeling this way”
“You are not alone. This is something that many people go through. Can you tell me more about your experience?”
- Ask open-ended questions
Asking closed-ended questions such as “Are you thinking about suicide or self-harm?” can only give us so much information. Asking open ended questions will help the child to open up more and perhaps share how and when these thoughts began. In addition, it might help the parent and child be able to explore deeper feelings such as disappointment, loss, anger, resentment or sadness. An example of an open-ended question that you might as is:
“I’d like to understand more about what you’re going through. Can you tell me more?”
When should I seek help for my child?
Not everyone who has thoughts of suicide will act on them. However, it is important that when an individual comes to you to talk about their recent thoughts, that we give options and a sense of control. It might be beneficial for you to ask your child if he or she would like to see a professional for support. It that is also important to remember is that each child is unique and their experiences and behaviors are unique. As a parent, you know your child. Therefore, it is worth noting when their behaviors or demeaners change in any sort of way (if social patterns change, self-isolation occurs, eating or sleeping patterns are rapidly changing). Contacting a therapist could be a good first step in supporting your child through these thoughts and feelings.
What to expect when coming to therapy for the first time
You will first speak to our scheduling staff who are trained to connect clients with the “best fit” of a counselor. During the first meeting, the therapist will ask questions to get to know your child and your family. At the end of the session, a treatment plan will be created to find measurable and achievable goals to strive towards during therapy. A safety plan will also be created if your child communicates that he or she is having suicidal thoughts and has a plan. Common components of a safety plan include the removal harmful objects from the home and identifying individuals and resources who could provide support (parents, therapist, national suicide prevention hotline, etc.).
Helping a child through a mental health crisis can be one of the most terrifying things a parent will ever face. Just remember that help is available and you are not alone.