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How you can help your kids deal with suicidal thoughts

African American father and his son.

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[Photo credit: Getty Images]

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Situations that cause people to feel hopeless are unique in each case — but having suicidal thoughts is not. These thoughts can be overwhelming and frightening, and it can be challenging for a child or teen to know the best way to cope.

Serafin T. Lalas, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center, says talking to your children about their suicidal thoughts can also be a challenge.

“If your child confides in you that they are having suicidal thoughts, the first thing to do is to take it seriously,” Lalas says. “It is hard to determine where they are at in their thought process, so it is best to assume the worst. Be there to listen to them and validate their feelings,” he says.

Lalas says keeping an open line of communication is always helpful because kids may not always be forthcoming with how they feel. “The range of emotions kids can have with having suicidal thoughts are fear, shame, guilt and hopelessness,” he says. “Some are just simply confused about why they feel this way, and this can cause them to shut down and isolate themselves.”

Suicidal thoughts can evoke different kinds of emotions, so Lalas says it’s important to be sympathetic and supportive. “You don’t need to necessarily try to solve their problems right then and there, since you may not be able to anyway, but let them know you are there for them and that help is available,” he says. “The worst thing a suicidal person can do is to isolate themselves.”

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it is important to learn the warning signs of teenage suicide in order to prevent an attempt. Maintaining open communication with your teenager and their friends provides an opportunity for helping as needed. If a teen is talking about suicide, he or she must receive immediate evaluation.

There are many professionals who could help a child with suicidal thoughts. Depending on the severity and acuity of the situation, Lalas says the patient may need to be hospitalized for safety and to stabilize the current condition. In the inpatient setting, there are psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, chaplains and case managers who could provide care for the patient.

“Seeing a therapist on a regular basis and having an identified adult that the patient can turn to when the suicidal thoughts become unbearable are good interventions to have as well,” Lalas says.

The majority of children and adolescents who attempt suicide have a significant mental health disorder, usually depression. Depression and suicidal feelings are treatable mental disorders. Lalas says the child or adolescent needs to have his or her illness recognized and diagnosed — and then appropriately treated with a comprehensive treatment plan.

If you suspect a person is at high risk for suicide and is refusing help and driving you away in order to isolate, calling 911 is always an option. Your friend may be upset with you initially for doing this, but you will keep them from doing something that is irreversible. 

If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, visit our behavioral health services website and learn more about how Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center can help. Request information on a diagnosis or treatment or any behavioral health concerns and one of our intake coordinators will contact you.

If you or someone you know is in a life-threatening crisis now, seek help immediately. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center or dial 911 for immediate assistance.

Additional Information:

Warning signs for teen depression:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or isolation
  • Declining school performance
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in social and sports activities
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Nervousness, agitation or irritability
  • Substance abuse

Steps parents can take:

  • Keep medications and firearms away from children.
  • Get your child help (medical or mental health professional).
  • Support your child (listen, avoid undue criticism, remain connected).
  • Become informed (library, local support group, Internet)

Steps for teens who are feeling this way:

  • Take your friend’s behavior and discussion of suicide seriously.
  • Encourage your friend to seek professional help, accompany if necessary.
  • Talk to an adult you trust. Don’t be alone in helping your friend.

 

This article was originally published on the Loma Linda University Health news site