I was recently asked to speak at a community event about youth suicide. Several young people in the area had killed themselves in the past few months to years. This was an opportunity for the community to learn and talk about suicide and suicide prevention.
My role was to provide a professional perspective on and information about suicide in young people. There was also a panel of people between the ages of 16 and 19 who shared their perspectives about suicide. The youth panel was the most compelling aspect of the evening.
The audience was comprised entirely of adults. Most were probably parents; others were adults who often interact with young people, such as school administrators and police. The youth panel encouraged the audience to talk to the young people in their lives about death, dying, and suicide. The panel also spoke about the importance of showing that they, as adults, care about young people. They shared their experiences in how talking about suicide with their peers has given others hope and saved lives.
One girl shared an anecdote that involved a teacher who inspected the wrists and arms of students prior to a test. He wanted to ensure that students didn’t have accoutrements on their arms that could contribute to cheating. This girl said that she felt anxious about rolling up her sleeves because of the scars on her wrists and arms from cutting. What would her teacher say or do?
When he inspected her arms, he undoubtedly saw the scars. His response? “Okay, good. Nothing on you that will lead to cheating.” And that was it. He never spoke to her about what he saw; he never asked her how she was doing or what the injuries were on her arms.
What did she take away from that? “He cared more about whether I was cheating than about me staying alive.”
The fresh candor of young people inspired some adults to comment on their own perspectives of suicide. One man, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans and voice deep and gruff, shared, “I’m a veteran. I also come from a generation of men who just don’t talk about suicide, even though a lot of veterans come home from war and commit suicide.”
The contrast was striking: The young people sat on the stage, the lights on their faces, and spoke about death and suicide without fear or self-consciousness. The adults sat in the shade of the auditorium and shifted with unease, gasped with sadness, or shook their heads when they heard the youth talk about their peers dying.
I do not believe that there was anything anomalous about this group of young people. Youth want to talk with adults about death, dying, and suicide. They want relationships with parents and other parental figures where they can ask questions, share their worries, and learn how to navigate the difficulties in life so that they can live another day. They also are sensitive to the burdens that adults already experience; sometimes they don’t share their thoughts, worries, dreams, and fears with us because they don’t want to cause us more distress. Because they automatically assume that any conversation about death and dying will cause distress in adults.
I created a short handout with suggestions about how to talk about suicide with young people (hint: these suggestions work with adults and older people, too). It also has phone numbers to call, online chats to access, and websites to view for more information about suicide prevention.
There is no evidence to support the fear that talking about suicide—particularly in a thoughtful, caring way—will increase the likelihood that people will kill themselves. In fact, talking about suicide directly can help people change their minds about taking their lives.
Here’s the requisite link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is an excellent and literally lifesaving resource. However, I encourage all of us to talk with each other, within our own communities—even if it is “only” the community within our homes—about death, dying, and suicide. We don’t have to talk about it all the time; we don’t have to ask each other, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” every day. The more comfort we have with talking about how we are doing, what we’re thinking about, and what death means to us, the more we can support each other when the difficulties, problems, and failures in life occur.