Recently I picked my 6th grade son up from school. As we talked about the day he told me one of the kids in his class said he wanted to commit suicide. Both my motherly and my therapist instincts kicked in. I asked a few questions and we turned the car around to go back to the school. As we readied ourselves to go inside and speak with the Principal my son asked if he had to tell. “Yes,” I replied. He said, “What if he didn’t mean it?” I asked him, “Do you think he was serious?” My son thought for a moment and said, “Yes. I’m not 100% sure, but he sounded serious. You’re right. I have to tell.”
Oh, how hard it is for a 6th grader to tell what he/she heard from another student! They think, “Will the other person be mad? What if they didn’t mean it?” Middle school is a formative social time. The social pressures are high. Telling can seem like the hardest thing in the world!
In this day and age we are trained to report a threats agains others. See a suspicious bag? Report it. Someone say they want to do something violent at school? Report it. But do we train our kids to report when someone says they want to die or are contemplating suicide? Or when a friend lifts a sleeve to reveal cutting or other self injuries? Maybe it gets a passing nod, but often it gets slipped under the rug. It’s an uncomfortable conversation. What if the kid is just emoting and being brash? What if the kid doesn’t mean it?
The better question is – what if they do mean it? Even if they are being brash? What if, even if they don’t fully mean it, it’s a sign that something is wrong?
As a therapist, I work with families whose kids experience suicidal feelings. I hear the stories from other kids who know that so-and-so is cutting. Or who heard that so-and-so wanted to die. I hear their anguish as they talk about attending the funeral of a 12-year-old neighbor they played with who took their own life. I talk a lot about telling. How to tell. Who to tell. Telling every time, not being lulled into a sense of “they don’t really mean it because they always say it and nothing’s happened yet.”
Teach your kids to tell. Tell you. Tell the principal. Tell the guidance counselor. Tell the school social worker. Tell someone with power to step in and help the child and his/her family. Don’t be silent. Tell. There is no shame in needing some help and support and it is vastly better to have someone be angry with you for telling than for that someone to be dead.
And, heaven forbid, if your child tells you they want to die or you catch them self injuring, act on it. Don’t just ignore it. Get help. Find a good therapist who specializes in helping kids get through this.
No matter the context, it’s a hard conversation, but it’s one that can save a life.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you need to find a therapist, you can look one up on Psychology Today.