Many aspects of parenting are not easy, and discussions of suicide can be one of the most difficult for a mom or dad to address. So, what can you do, as a parent, when your child comes to you worried and overwhelmed because they have a friend who is talking about suicide?

Stop what you are doing, listen, and engage.

If your child tells you their friend is talking about suicide, encourage the discussion. It is important to let your child know that steps must be taken to get their friend some help. Young people need to hear that this is not a time for secrets and that sharing this information is critically important to save the friend’s life.

Some steps you can take:

Ask for details: What has happened? What did the friend say about suicide? Does the friend have a specific plan for suicide?

Get emergency help. Suicidal ideation is a critical concern under any circumstances and needs to be addressed by an appropriate professional. Young people tend to be high risk for suicide because they can make decisions rapidly and impulsively. A person who has been thinking about suicide long enough to consider a suicide method especially needs to be assessed by a medical or mental health professional immediately. This can be done on an emergency basis in any emergency department, at a psychiatric hospital, at a community mental health center or by a mental health professional in private practice. There are also various hotlines that will specifically assist people who are concerned about suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255.

Reach out to the friend’s family or school. If possible, let the friend’s parents know what is going on and, if needed, assist them in getting appropriate help for their child. If you believe you cannot address concerns with the friend’s parents, then contact the young person’s school and let school staff know. Most schools have specific protocols to follow if they become aware that a student is reporting suicidal ideation. If school is not in session, emergency services can be called to conduct a wellness check. A specially trained Crisis Intervention Team officer will be dispatched. Crisis Intervention Team is a nationally-recognized, evidence-based program to assist officers in responding to crises involving persons with mental illness, including youth experiencing suicidal ideation. Applicants to the program must pass a screening interview and then receive 40-60 hours of training, including information on mental illness, suicide, medications, legal issues and response protocols. On the scene, certified officers assess and defuse the crisis and determine next steps, such as hospitalization, referrals to outpatient services or a case manager. 

Help your own child. Your child may feel overwhelmed by fear or guilt. Some young people believe that they can manage their thoughts of suicide by sharing the details with their friends. If your child is someone’s confidante, know that it is not unusual for teens to try to keep their friend’s secrets. Young people who are thinking about suicide may be very concerned about what might happen if adults become aware of their thoughts and they may ask their friends to promise to keep these discussions a secret. These are thoughts that CANNOT be kept a secret.
Anyone, no matter the age, contemplating killing themselves needs professional help.

Acknowledge this truth with your child: your relationship with the friend may become strained, but getting help could save your friend’s life.

Listen and ask. Do not avoid the discussion of suicide if your child brings it up. But, remember, it may be essential to bring the subject up yourself if you have any concerns. Thinking about suicide can be a very isolative and overwhelming experience and frequently those seriously contemplating suicide do not want to burden others with their thoughts.

It is important to help dispel the myth that asking about suicide will “put the idea” in someone’s head. The reality is if a caring person asks the question “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” it can be a great relief to the person thinking about suicide. A direct question gives a person the opportunity to start talking about the issue and to gain needed social support.

Remember to take any discussion about suicide seriously and do your best to encourage the discussion. Taking appropriate precautions could save someone’s life.