Talking to our Children about Suicide

By Kathy Kehoe-Biggs, LCSW, PHD

Today’s youth are being exposed to the subject of suicide through the media. Unfortunately, media often does not follow the suggested guidelines when reporting on a death by suicide, but instead creates graphic accounts for young people to witness repeatedly without providing factual information about mental illness. For example, reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event such as bullying, job loss, and divorce or poor grades leaves the public with an overly simplistic and inaccurate view of suicide. Words such as “epidemic” are not factual but are used to attract readers often resulting in fear. Investigating and reporting on suicide similarly to reporting on crime only increases the stigma associated with suicide, which can work against open communication on the issue. When someone dies by suicide mental illness should be at the heart of the story instead of sensationalized and dramatic details.

When the media broadcasts a suicide it is our opportunity as adults to start a dialogue about the subject with children, placing it in the proper context. Talking calmly and openly about a suicide will help create an atmosphere where other difficult subjects can be discussed.

Research shows that Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder at the time of their death. In teens, mental disorders linked to suicide are major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, conduct disorders and eating disorders. Environmental stressors can trigger these mental health issues, they can also occur as a result of brain chemistry. Personality characteristics such as impulsivity along with a history of trauma such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse can also increase suicide risk. It is important to note that the vast majority of teens who experience even these very stressful circumstances do not become suicidal. When talking with children use these facts about the causes of death by suicide to counteract the sensationalism, which often accompanies message boards, bloggers, television, print and online media.

When talking to Teens about suicide I often use these words:

 “Right before someone dies by suicide, their brain is sick; which is causing them to look at the world as if the are looking through a pin whole. There is just one tiny piece of light coming through.

Death seems like their only choice. But of course we know that this is not the truth. There is a firm feeling that choosing death is rational. Mental illness such as depression and anxiety impacts a person’s cognition just as much as emotions. When a person dies by suicide their cognitive functioning is flawed, because the organ responsible for thought is sick.”

When talking to young children about suicide I use these words:

“Suicide is when people decide they do not want their body to work anymore and they stop their body from working. They are so, so, so sad or so, so, so, so angry or so, so, so, depressed that their mind becomes mixed up. They forget that the can get help. There is always another way (Goldman, 1998).

Explain to your students that a very small percentage of the population who have a mental illness die from that illness. There is no cure but there is treatment. Education and open discussion about the issue will increase treatment. Remember if it is mentionable it is manageable. When talking to children about topics such as suicide and mental illness it is important to be brave and let children know with not only our words but with your body language and other unspoken communication that you are ready to hear whatever is on their mind.

Kathryn Kehoe-Biggs, Ph.D.- Has a private practice in Pelham, NY and can be reached at 914-420-9173, or