Although suicide by children and young people is not common, it is an important issue for parents to understand. In 2015, 405 children and young people under the age of 25 died by suicide. That’s greater than the number who died in road accidents and makes suicide the leading cause of death for young people aged 12 to 25.
Kids Helpline recently consulted young people who had thought about or attempted suicide. They talked about their parents more than anyone else, but it was clear that many parents found it difficult to know how to support their child. This Hot Topic will help you understand suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and what you can do if you’re concerned about your child.
If the young person has a specific plan for suicide and might be at risk of hurting themselves soon, call a crisis telephone line. If someone is in immediate danger, call 000 for an ambulance.
- Kids Helpline – for ages 5-25, 24/7 phone counselling on 1800 55 1800 or WebChat between 8am and midnight at kidshelpline.com.au. Kids Helpline counsellors are experts at talking to young people.
- Lifeline – all ages, for support in a personal crisis, 24/7 phone counselling on 13 11 14 or web chat between 7pm and 4am at lifeline.org.au
- Suicide Call Back Service – for 15 years and over, support when you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, 24/7 phone counselling on 1300 659 467 or see suicidecallbackservice.org.au
Why do young people become suicidal?
There is no single pathway to suicide. For some young people, suicide is an impulsive decision, and for others it’s something they’ve been thinking about for years. We do know that young people who think about or attempt suicide usually have a number of things in common:
- They are in great emotional pain and have lost hope that anything can change
- They don’t actually want to die, but death seems like the only way to escape the pain they feel
- They feel worthless and undeserving, and see themselves as a burden on those around them
- They feel isolated and alone
- They desperately want help, but are too scared to talk to anyone.
You may not be able to see any obvious reason for these feelings, but this doesn’t make them any less real.
“I feel so out of place and I just screw everything up. I’m terrified to die but I feel like it’s the last option I have.”
Risk factors for suicide
Some young people are at greater risk of suicide than others, but it’s important to know that risk factors don’t cause suicide. Some young people have lots of risk factors and never feel suicidal, and some suicidal young people have only a couple of risk factors.
Suicide does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone.
Risk factors include:
- Mental ill health or mental illness (such as depression)
- Problems with drugs or alcohol
- History of non-suicidal self-harm (e.g., superficial cutting)
- Bullying or exclusion by peers
- Low self-esteem
- Grief (e.g., loss of a family member or close friend)
- Experience of child abuse
- Exposure to suicide by others, or family history of suicide.
Some groups of young people, such as those who identify as LGBTIQ or those from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background are at higher risk than others. This is not a direct result of their sexuality or cultural background, but is linked to the discrimination and exclusion they often experience.
Why don’t young people ask for help?
When Kids Helpline consulted young people who had been suicidal, we found that only 40% had ever received help, and 20% of those didn’t get help until after they attempted suicide. The main reasons they didn’t ask for help were:
- Stigma – “I didn’t want to be judged or thought of differently. There’s such a stigma about it so I just kept quiet.”
- Fear they wouldn’t be believed – “When I tried to tell someone close to me they thought it was a joke. They didn’t take me seriously and didn’t help me.”
- Fear of being called an ‘attention seeker’ – “I feel so weak. Everyone will think that I’m using it for attention.”
- Feeling worthless – “I felt that I was not worth being helped.”
- Concern for others – “I can’t bring myself to tell her …. I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to be a burden.”
Suicide warning signs
Young people clearly tell us they do want help, and often they give out hints in the hope someone will notice. It can be difficult to tell the difference between these warning signs and typical teenage ups and downs. A young person might seem suicidal one day and fine the next, so it’s important to take all warning signs seriously.
Warning signs come in many forms – conversations, feelings, physical changes and changes in behaviour.
Common warning signs include:
- Hints about wanting to die such as “I’d like to go to sleep and never wake up”
- Talking about death a lot (even in a joking way)
- Withdrawing from others – not seeing friends, staying in their room all the time
- Not doing things they used to enjoy
- Talking about feeling alone, things being hopeless, or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling worthless or being a burden on others
- “Making arrangements” such as giving away possessions or saying goodbye
- Increased drug or alcohol use
- Dramatic changes in mood
- Self-harming such as cutting
- Risk-taking or recklessness that suggests no fear of death
- Possessing means of suicide such as medication or weapons
- Talking about suicide.
If a young person has been depressed for some time and suddenly seems to be happy, it’s important not to assume everything’s okay. A sudden change like this is sometimes a warning sign that the person has made the decision to end their life.
What can parents do?
1. Don’t ignore the issue – take any warning signs seriously
If you’re at all concerned, trust your instincts and don’t just hope things will get better on their own. It’s essential that you take your child’s concerns seriously, even if their problems seem trivial to you.
2. Ask if they’re okay and show that you care
Sometimes parents are scared that talking about suicide will put ideas in their child’s head. This is a myth. In fact, the best way to find out if someone is thinking about suicide is to ask them.
“I just want someone to ask me if I ever had suicidal thoughts, my reply will be yes. No one really knows how sad I am.”
Asking your child if they’re okay and telling them you’re concerned about them can be the first step on the road to recovery. Just showing that you care and telling them they’re not alone can make a huge difference.
It’s okay to ask direct questions about suicidal thoughts. For example, you can ask “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” If the answer is yes, ask about their immediate safety. Do they have a specific suicide plan? Have they attempted suicide in the past?
3. Address any immediate risk of harm
If your child has a plan and is in possession of the means to end their life, it’s important to take action straight away.
- Call one of the helplines listed above.
- Remove any dangerous objects like medication or knives.
- In an emergency, dial 000 or take them to a hospital emergency room.
- Don’t leave your child alone until help has arrived or you’re sure they are safe.
4. Continue the conversation
If your child has been thinking about suicide, but is not in immediate danger, you should continue the conversation and support them to get professional help. Feel assured that there is no perfect way to start a conversation, but it’s crucial that you do.
Always listen without making judgements or assumptions, don’t pressure your child to share personal details before they’re ready, and take all their concerns seriously. Be aware that suicidal thoughts aren’t logical or rational, and advice can be interpreted as criticism, so avoid telling them what they should do.
“My mum will tell me that going for a walk or a run would really help and joining the gym would help ………….. and that makes me then think my mum thinks I’m fat, I am fat, I’m lazy, she hates me, I hate me, and so on.”
5. Help your child get professional support
Serious suicidal thoughts and behaviours are too much for family and friends to handle alone. Professional counselling and psychological support do help, but young people are often scared about talking to someone and may need you to guide and encourage them. You can help by taking them to a GP, who can create a Mental Health Care Plan and refer you to a psychologist. Kids Helpline counsellors are also a great place to start. During 2015, they responded to more than 7,500 contacts related to suicide and are experts at talking to young people.
6. Be patient and continue to show how much you care
People who are thinking about suicide often feel alone, view themselves as worthless, and believe they are a burden on others, who would be better off without them. One of the most important things you can do is show them that this is not true.
Suicidal thoughts don’t go away in a couple of weeks. Your child may need support and treatment for a long time. Keep checking in with them and support them to continue professional treatment for as long as necessary.
7. Look after yourself
Learning that your child has been thinking about suicide is distressing. Don’t attempt to do everything on your own and don’t be afraid to seek help for yourself, both for your own sake and so you can be the best support for your child.
Myth: Young people say they’re depressed or suicidal to get attention – they won’t actually do it.
Fact: People who die by suicide often talk about death, suicide or feeling hopeless first – this is an important warning sign and a plea for help. Giving the person the attention they need may save their life.
Myth: Children and teenagers are too young to really be serious about suicide.
Fact: Suicide by children is rare, but when Kids Helpline consulted suicidal young people, one in five respondents was aged 13 years or younger. Between 2009 and 2013, 70 children aged between five and 14 years died by suicide in Australia.
Myth: All people who are suicidal have a mental illness.
Fact: Many suicidal people have a mental illness such as depression, but people who were previously mentally healthy can start thinking about suicide in a response to overwhelming pain or distress.
Myth: People who are serious about suicide don’t ask for help.
Fact: Many people who die by suicide saw a doctor or tried to tell friends or family in the months before hand. Sometimes help-seeking comes in the form of verbal hints or changes in behaviour (see the list of warning signs above).
Myth: Suicide attempts are just manipulative or attention seeking.
Fact: The strongest risk factor for dying by suicide is a previous attempt. All attempts should be taken seriously. People attempt suicide because they are experiencing unbearable emotional pain and need support.
Myth: You shouldn’t ask about suicide because it might put the idea in their head.
Fact: It’s important to ask about suicidal thoughts so you can support the person to get the help they need. Most people want someone to listen, they’re just too scared to start the conversation. Talking helps.
Myth: My child has a great life, so they couldn’t be suicidal.
Fact: Suicidal young people may not have any obvious problems. Problems that seem insignificant to an adult may be extremely distressing for a young person. People who take their own life usually feel like they don’t belong, aren’t good enough, and are a burden on others. What matters is that they feel that way, not whether others think it’s true.
Myth: If someone has made up their mind to die, there’s nothing you can do.
Fact: Most people who attempt suicide don’t want to die – they just want to end their pain. Feeling actively suicidal is usually temporary and getting help at the right time can prevent suicide.
- For phone and online counselling and advice for you or your child, call one of the helplines below:
- Kids Helpline – for ages 5-25 to talk about anything at all
24/7 phone counselling on 1800 55 1800 or WebChat between 8am and midnight at www.kidshelp.com.au
- Lifeline – all ages, for support in a personal crisis
24/7 phone counselling on 13 11 14 or web chat between 7pm and 4am at www.lifeline.org.au
- Suicide Call Back Service – for 15 years and over, support when you or someone you know is feeling suicidal
24/7 phone counselling on 1300 659 467 or see www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
- If you have any concerns about your child and any potential family conflict issues, call a Parentline service.
- If you’d like to read more about our consultation with young people, Preventing suicide: The voice of young people, you can find the reports here (the report called Insights Part 3 is young people’s messages for parents and carers).
- For more information: