How to Talk about Suicide with Our Families
“I think we’re going to be the generation of suicide.”
A terrifying thought shared by a 14-year-old girl while getting professional help after trying to take her own life.
Her perspective underlines how often our youth deal with the subject of suicide in their own lives, within their social circles, and in what they see on shows, what they hear on the radio, and what they read and watch on social media. Suicide is a serious problem, a global public health issue that spares no race, religion, age group, gender, sexual orientation, or marital status.
While it’s a complex situation with no single cause, the risks can be reduced when people come together to help those who are struggling. There is hope. There is help. But we must know what to look out for, what to do when we see warning signs, and who to turn to for help.
Dr. Greg Hudnall, a nationally sought after expert on suicide prevention and the founder of Hope 4 Utah, shared some of his insights during a recent episode of Gospel Solutions for Families.
Dr. Hudnall: One of the biggest misconceptions that parents have is that talking about suicide with their kids who are struggling is going to give them the idea to do it. Chances are they’ve already thought about it. You’re not going to put the idea in their head. Often, we’re afraid to talk about it. But we’re really trying to break that barrier because the thing that we need to remember is individuals don’t really want to die. They want the pain to go away. They’re suffering, and a lot of times they’re embarrassed or ashamed. They feel like they’re the only one struggling. So, help them know that they’re not alone. Talk to them. Let them know they’re loved. Help them feel a connection so that they don’t feel like they’re the only one.
Dr. Hudnall: Parents know their children better than anybody. It’s important to start building relationships with each of your children at a young age, not so much to confront them about mental illness or mental health, but to let them know that you care about them and that if they ever start to struggle that you would hope they would be willing to talk to you. But then also planting that seed that if I notice something and I’m worried about it, I want you to know that I’m going to come and visit with you.
One of the things we try to train parents to watch for is warning signs. The warning signs include someone talking about wanting to die, making comments like, “My family would be better off without me,” looking up information about suicide on the internet, giving away prized possessions, or behavioral changes like they seem more depressed or they’re pulling away from the family. It’s important when you see these warning signs that in a private moment you use the “I” message: “I noticed today you seemed really depressed. I want you to know I’m worried about you.” This allows you to open up the conversation, and once you have that child’s full attention, start asking some difficult questions like, “Have you thought about hurting yourself? Have you thought about suicide?” If they have, ask them who they’d be willing to talk to about their feelings, and, if needed, get them professional help. You have to ask the tough questions.
Dr. Hudnall: We want to be really careful not to preach, lecture, push religion on them, or anything that way. What we really want to do is ask questions and then listen and let them know that we’re concerned and that love is there. So, you want to do it in a private moment and it’s not when you’re angry or argumentative. Sometimes I will ask parents, “Who’s the closest at that time?” Is it the father; is it the mother? And then pull away from the family one-on-one with that child so that they’re not being interrupted and they can have that hard discussion with them. What I’ve learned is we’re afraid to ask. We’re afraid to talk about it. We think if we just pray about it it’s going to go away. But we’ve got to have the courage to notice those changes, those behaviors in our children, and then ask those difficult questions. I always encourage parents to get them to that next level, a professional mental health agency, that professional therapist that can then help them work through those suicidal ideations and other challenges they may have.
Dr. Hudnall: I had a Church assignment for three years and I taught religion at the county jail. Elder Holland came to talk to us, and I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “If Christ were to come tomorrow, we know the first place He would be is the temple, but we also know the next place He would be is in a place like this.” There is hope and there is opportunity for us. The Savior will literally save us. But we can help be His hands. I think we need to do more like what Elder Holland talks about. Be kinder, more sensitive to people’s needs, be more willing to accept them, be more willing to help them. I think that’s what we need to do. While it takes an entire village to raise a child, we believe it takes an entire community to save one. And I think that’s the challenge to all of us—to be that one, to be that person to reach out.
For more on this subject, including Dr. Hudnall’s observations as a first responder of how dangerous technology in bedrooms can be, watch the full episode below. Additional resources are also available on preventingsuicide.lds.org.