In 2017, 51 suicides by children aged 10-17 were reported in the state of Tennessee.
This issue hit home in Chattanooga this week, when news broke that a 9 year-old in fourth grade at Orchard Knob Elementary School took his own life.
Local mental health practitioners and experts want to remind educators, parents and community members what to look for and how to support children who are struggling.
Here are some tips from these experts on how to talk to your child about suicide:
1. Don’t be afraid to talk about.
Talking about suicide doesn’t encourage it. Children will fill in gaps in information if adults don’t, so parents should be honest.
“We cannot be afraid to talk about it, we cannot be afraid of bringing up a topic and then allowing our children to share what’s going on in their head,” said Gayle Lodato, senior director of Greater Chattanooga Services for the Helen Ross McNabb Center. “We need to create that safe place.”
2. Address the issue in a way that is appropriate for your child’s age and stage of development.
For young children, stick to the basics. Ages 7-10, give short, true answers. As children get older, be more concrete.
“There is more talk about suicide now than ever before,” said Jucinta Rome, a licensed clinical social worker for Erlanger Behavioral Health. “So I think younger and younger children are being exposed to what it is, while not having the cognitive ability to understand what that actually means.”
3. Start the conversation by asking your child what they know or what they’ve heard.
“Parents should have open conversations because if we don’t give children information, then they have to come up with it themselves,” Rome said. “Open the conversation up to find out what they know.”
4. Ask them if they or their friends have ever had feelings or thought about hurting themselves.
Experts say that many times people, even children, will rarely open up about suicidal feelings without being prompted. If they are asked in a way that sounds threatening or judgmental, they will not feel comfortable opening up, so parents must provide a safe place and approach the conversation with an open mind.
5. Be open to your child’s questions. Answer honestly.
6. Have other safe, familiar adults help with the conversation if needed, such as family members, parents of friends, neighbors or clergy.
There are dozens of resources available online, tip sheets and even books about suicide or death.Some community mental health service providers even offer one-time appointments to work through tough conversations with your child.
7. Most importantly, tell them if a friend ever shares that they feel this way then your child must tell an adult.
Explain it is not something to be kept a secret, but it is not tattling or snitching to tell a grown-up. Explain that it will help keep them or their friend safe and well.
“When it comes to depression or if a friend has said they felt like killing themselves, the child needs to always know they have to let an adult know,” Rome said. “That’s not something you keep a secret. …They need to know that you’re not telling on your friend, you’re not snitching, you’re helping keep your friend safe and well.”
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.