Could talking about suicide have the effect of pushing a teenager in the wrong direction? I have reasons to believe that my son may be struggling with self-destructive thoughts and tendencies. While I think it's generally important to confront this situation directly, I keep wondering what might happen if I bring up my concerns and he's not suicidal? Is it possible that discussing the issue could backfire by actually planting the idea in his head?
It's reasonable to be apprehensive about such a crucial discussion. But don't forget that, generally speaking, your initiative and concern are what your teen needs most. If you feel there's reason for concern, you shouldn't hesitate to say so. In a situation like this, it's always better to err on the side of caution. Many people suppose that talking about suicide with a depressed person will only aggravate the problem. But in actuality the opposite is true. Open and honest discussion is one of the best ways of preventing suicide.
Look at it this way. Your child's symptoms – even if he's not technically suicidal – indicate that he isn't handling life very well. If that's the case, there's a problem somewhere that warrants loving intervention, and as his parent you're in the best position to provide it. As long as you make it clear that your words and actions are motivated by genuine love and concern, then there's no reason to fear that you may make things worse by addressing the matter.. Statistics indicate that a strong sense of parent-family connectedness is one of the most effective protections against suicidal behavior among young people.
When you express concern about your teen hurting himself, be forthright and specific about the signals you're getting. Whether your extreme fears are justified or not, he should be grateful that someone is paying attention and making an effort to reach into his life with practical help. We suggest you sit down with your son and press him with some direct questions. You might begin with something like, "Where are these negative feelings coming from?" or "Have you ever felt so bad that you've actually thought about taking your own life?" It could be especially helpful and revealing to ask, "Exactly what would have to change for you to feel better?" You may also want to get an official psychiatric diagnosis in order to ascertain more clearly what's behind the depression and the veiled or unveiled allusions to suicide. Your teen could be struggling with an anxiety disorder, a bipolar condition, or some kind of substance abuse.
You can be a lifeline to your child at a time when the pressures of adolescence are overwhelming him and obscuring his perceptions of the future. So set aside your own private reaction to his crisis and concentrate on helping him weather the storm. Don't criticize, express anger, assign blame or share personal anxieties at this point. Instead, be a source of unconditional love, compassion and support. When teens start to see life as a dark and daily source of frustration and pain, they don't need a judge; they need a friend. As a wise and loving parent, you can direct your child's attention to the eternal hope we have in Jesus Christ, "in which we stand and rejoice … knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance character, and character hope" (Romans 5:2-4). But first you'll have to gain his confidence and trust.
Meanwhile, you'll want to be aware of and look for signs that could indicate that your adolescent might be clinically depressed. You should observe for behaviors such as painful introspection, negative self-concept, dramatic mood swings, episodes of moping and crying, withdrawal and isolation, fatigue and other unexplained physical ailments, poor school performance, and outbursts of anger and overt acting out. If these symptoms are present and persist for more than two weeks then you should seek appropriate help immediately. You may want to contact your physician for advice or a referral. Even if a present threat of suicide doesn't seem to be part of the picture, you should still take definite steps to deal with the depression.
You should also feel free to contact Focus on the Family's Counseling department. One of our caring Christian therapists would be happy to discuss your situation with you. Our counselors are also in a position to provide you with a list of referrals to mental health professionals practicing in your local area.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
New Hope Telephone Counseling Center – 1-714-NEW-HOPE (639-4673)
Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
When You Feel Hopeless