14-year-old Celeste binged watched the second season of 13 Reasons Why as soon as school was out. Her mom had given her permission, saying she wanted to talk about suicide, the show, and her thoughts later.

But they never got around to it.

A few weeks later, they both watched the big screen at home, not saying anything. Celeste texted something now and then on the little screen in her hand.

Again and again, news anchors and entertainment personalities talked about celebrity Anthony Bourdain.

Gone. Suicide. Shock. Thoughts and prayers for his teenage daughter.

(He was a cool older guy, doing everything Celeste dreamed of. A chef, A world traveler, a TV star. )

The station ran news of designer Kate Spade’s funeral too. Famous people in black moved around on the screen. More “I can’t believe it” commentary. More prayers.  Another teenage daughter left behind.

Celeste looked at her mom and asked, “Does anybody ever see it coming? Why didn’t anybody know?”

Her mom turned off the TV. “Let’s talk,” she said.

What about you? When it’s time to talk about suicide with your teen, will you be ready?

Suicide is frighteningly common, your teen is well aware

Netflix show, 13  Reasons Why, is art imitating life… and death for many teens. And that can be upsetting for teens who witness too many peers reach such hopelessness. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), young people are alarmingly vulnerable:

  • Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States
  • Suicide was the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among older people ages 35 and 54.
  • Suicides (44,965) in the United States eclipsed the number of homicides (19,362) in 2016.

The recent media attention placed on high-profile deaths reinforced the truth:

 Depression is deadly and no one is immune.

Let your teen know that you take his or her feelings seriously. Encourage them to share their feelings with you or someone they trust. Depression is a bully that corners and isolates too many teens at a time when they long for social connections.

Ask your teen what they know

Try not to treat this conversation like a 90’s PSA. This is really not a topic well-served by lectures or cliche slogans. 

Be curious and completely engaged. You want to hear from your teen. Let them share or talk about suicide at their own pace.

Pay close attention to their assumptions and conclusions. It’s increasingly hard to see into the minds of teenagers today. So many parents are oblivious to their child’s inner world. They may miss how deep their child is hurting or how isolated they feel.

Keep in mind, smartphones often steal the kinds of interactions that used to inform parents. You won’t overhear conversations, find many notes in pockets, and diaries offline are rare. Their feelings and fears are often password-protected, texted, and snapped.

Therefore, you may need to draw them out a bit to get a conversation flowing and start your talk about suicide slow.

If your teen is willing, explore a few of the following questions:

  • How did you feel when you learned of a classmates suicide?
  • What happens when you see really sad or self-threatening posts on social media. Does anyone help?
  • How would you want someone to reach out if you, or someone you loved, was on the edge of suicide?
  • How do you feel about adults who threaten or commit suicide? How are you affected?
  • Have you ever felt that sad?

Discuss the signs of at-risk behavior together. Ask if anyone they know might be in trouble. Talk about the urgency of the red flags listed below and remind them that these signals demand attention and response.

It’s not tattling, snitching, or narc-ing to save someone’s life. Talk about ways your teen could voice their concern discreetly.

Know the signs:

Here are some cautionary signals to be aware of:

Red Flags – Act Now

  • Suicidal vocabulary: serious and repeated statements of a problem, use of words like “worthless,” “in the way,” or “better off dead.”
  • Emotional behavior: Operating in extremes. Is alternately despondent, angry, and bitter or resentful towards life, self, or others.
  • Academic free fall: Sudden, drastic disconnect from academics, friends, and loved ones. All passion and purpose are gone.
  • Means and method: You notice or are aware that the suicide method is readily available as are unsafe materials like poison and firearms
  • Clearing space: A child says their goodbyes. He or she donates cherished belongings.

Yellow Flags – Pay Close Attention and Reach Out

  • Death- focused: A sudden interest in death and dying. Lots of books, clothing, music focused on death
  • School setbacks: Falling grades, skipped classes, lying. General negativity
  • Social shift: Questionable friend groups replace old relationships
  • Personality problems: negative changes in personality occur.

As a parent, use these tips to check on your children. Encourage your teen to be aware of these tips too when dealing with his or her peers. This can help them feel less helpless.

Put your heads together and find ways to practice caring.

Talk about how your teen can care for themselves. Discuss how self-care practices like enough sleep, nutritious food, daily exercise, and time with friends offline are important for feeling healthy and connected to others.

In addition, as many teens are so committed to social causes today, consider involvement with community groups or awareness campaigns. You may find your teen finds a purpose in peer-to-peer engagement programs. Talk to your teen about what they think is the best way to notice, care for, and encourage others.

Finally, when you talk about suicide with your teen, let them know they, their friends, and anyone they know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, will have your help.