Supporting young people at risk of suicide
Suicide is considered a leading cause of death worldwide, particularly of children and young people aged ten to 24 years. In Australia, there are more people who die through suicide than road accidents, skin cancer or homicide. Statistics show there are approximately 2,400 deaths by suicide in Australia in any given year, and in 2012 alone, 259 suicides by young people aged 15 to 24 were recorded. During 2014, counsellors with Kids Helpline responded to 71,691 contacts from children and young people who were under 18 years old. Of these contacts, 7471 were assessed as having current thoughts of suicide.
Definition of terms…
The following terms are used:
- ‘Suicide’ – refers to the intentional taking of one’s own life. A person’s death is classified as a suicide by a coroner if evidence shows that ‘the person died as a result of a deliberate act to cause his or her own death’.
- ‘Attempted Suicide’ – is the deliberate harming of one’s self, where the intention was to die but did not result in death.
- ‘Suicide thoughts’ (or suicidal ideation) – are the thoughts and/or plan to take one’s own life. These thoughts may or may not cause a person to attempt suicide.
Why do suicides happen?
There is no single explanation as to why people attempt or complete suicide. Everybody experiences feelings of anger, sadness, humiliation or helplessness from time to time. We all face challenges and major setbacks at some point in our lives. Suicide or attempted suicide is an indication that someone is in great emotional distress and feeling hopeless about life. They may want an escape from their perceived failure while at the same time be extremely worried about disappointing family or friends. Some may be feeling useless, unloved or thinking they are just a burden to others. Others may be feeling angry or guilty about something they have done, and see suicide as a means to cover up their mistakes.
However, not all people who attempt suicide really want to die. They may be desperately trying to get out of a complex situation, or trying to change it in some way. In a nutshell, what they really want is relief from the intense emotional pain they’re experiencing. When all attempts to communicate their distress are unheeded or unexpressed, a person may give up and finally complete a suicide.
What are the impacts of suicide?
A death by suicide can directly impact on at least six other people. Family members, friends, school mates, work colleagues and people who identify with the person who has taken their own life may experience significant personal, social and financial impacts. These people who are bereaved by suicide may experience a decline in their own physical health, develop mental health issues and also may become at risk of suicide themselves.
Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
What are the signs to look out for?
Eight out of ten people who complete suicide give warning signs or signals of their intentions, such as:
- Sudden changes in behaviour and attitude
- Increase in drug and/or alcohol use
- Self-inflicted wounds (cigarette burns, cuts, etc.)
- Hint of suicidal intent such as “I’d like to go to sleep and never wake up” or “I don’t want to live anymore”
- Giving away possessions
- Making or buying things with a recurring theme of death
- Presence of risk factors (listed below).
Although not everyone presenting any or all of the above signs has an intention to die, it’s important that parents and carers are able to recognise the signs of emotional distress in a young person so timely intervention can be provided.
What are the risk factors?
Most people would think a particular incident may have ‘caused’ the suicide, but the reality is that it could be due to a combination of issues which have been going on in a young person’s life for some time.
We have found that young callers may be at risk of suicide due to a combination of two or more of the following risk factors:
- Mental ill health (including untreated or undiagnosed depression)
- High level of drug and/or alcohol use
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of isolation and disconnectedness
- Violence and/or abuse (either current or in the past)
- Unresolved trauma
- Easy access to firearms, drugs and other potential means for self-harming
- Deliberate self-harm or suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide or family members exhibiting suicidal behaviours
- Misunderstanding and stigma associated with suicide and other mental health issues
Risk factors also include events which include any serious loss, distress or embarrassment, such as:
- Loss through death, divorce or moving house
- Relationship conflict or breakdown
- Perceived studies or work failure (including unemployment)
- Being in trouble with authorities (or incarceration)
- Serious illness or sudden disability
- Unplanned pregnancy
Even though the presence of any of the above may place a young person at risk of suicide, the extent of their impact depends in part on the presence of protective factors.
Calm conversations with your kids will always be more productive.
What are protective factors?
Protective factors can safeguard a young person against suicide despite the presence of distressing events or situations in their lives and include:
- Caring and supportive family, carers and friends
- Sense of connection and responsibility to family, friends and other people
- Access to support networks
- Positive self-esteem
- Effective help-seeking and communication skills
- Early identification and appropriate treatment of physical and/or mental health issues
- Addressing substance use issues
- Knowledge and willingness to implement personal safety strategies
- Safe home environment (reduced access to potential means of self-harm)
- Positive school and/or workplace experience (if the young person is a student and/or employed)
What can parents or carers do?
Young people who contemplate suicide often feel disconnected from everyone else. Your support as a parent or carer is important in reducing their sense of isolation and desperation. If you believe your child is having unsafe thoughts or is showing signs of emotional distress, you need to reach out and start a conversation about this issue. Feel assured there is no perfect way to start this conversation. The important thing is that you do.
Listed are other strategies from research which may also assist your child to keep safe: 
- Get medical assistance as soon as possible. If circumstances allow, it’s advisable you accompany your child to the doctor. This would provide you with an opportunity to ask questions and clarify things.
- Be aware of your own feelings and reactions. It’s crucial to remain calm and supportive, and not ignore the issue. Taking your child’s words seriously would help them feel supported and reduce their feelings of isolation or rejection.
- Maintain a safe home environment by removing access to any means of suicide such as drugs and alcohol, firearms and other potential devices for self-harming.
- Encourage your child to seek help whenever they feel unsafe. Emphasise the importance of communicating and sharing with you or with friends or other significant people. You may also encourage them to contact Kids Helpline or beyondblue.
- Ask your family doctor for a mental health care plan. Try to involve the school (and/or workplace, when applicable) so they would know what to do during an emergency situation and help prevent relapse. It’s crucial that all possible support is enlisted to help a young person stay safe.
- Continue being observant. Look out for signs which might indicate distress or further thoughts of suicide. If your child is recovering from depression, follow up to see how the support is going and check if additional help is needed. If the young person has an immediate intention to suicide, contact emergency services as soon as possible.
- Lastly, as a parent or carer of a young person at risk of suicide, you may need to seek support for yourself to help you through this time. Don’t attempt to do everything on your own. Try to seek the support of friends and relatives, as you help your child through their recovery.
Something to remember…
A young person contemplating suicide would have opposing feelings about whether or not they really want to die. This means there is always a chance they may change their mind if they receive timely and appropriate support.
Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.