- What are the signs of a mental health crisis?
- What are the signs of suicidality?
- What do I do if I think my child is suicidal?
- How can I help my child manage their mental health and develop coping skills?
Suicide has been well studied and documented in teenagers and students in high school. However, not much research has been done on this topic for elementary school children. While the rates of suicide in younger children are not as high as older teens, there is an increase in the number who have suicidal thoughts and experience severe depression and anxiety. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were 29 reported suicides of children younger than 10 on 2019.
It is never too early for parents and caregivers to take note of signs that their child may be in crisis or contemplating suicide. The Children’s Hospital Association reported that the number of children between 6-12 who came to the hospital due to thoughts of self-harm or suicide had doubled between 2016 and 2020. This increase is not completely understood, but some may be due to online bullying, social stress, poverty, lack of food, multigenerational drug and alcohol abuse, racism and family conflict. In addition, research from the National Library of Medicine shows that Black, Latino and Native American children are less likely to have access to mental health care, which increases their risk for self-harm.
This page focuses on how to identify someone who may be suicidal and how to support them. For more information on mental illness, click here.
Why it Matters
If a child attempts suicide at a young age, they are more likely to try and succeed in the future. Sometimes children may say that they want to die, and even though there is no real intent for suicide, there are likely underlying issues that need to be addressed. For more information on how to identify mental illness click here.
There are also psychological and personality characteristics that can make people vulnerable to mental illness and suicide, as well as biological factors, including genetics and chemical imbalances in the brain. The following is a list of risk factors that are often connected to mental illness and suicidality. It is important to note that while this list is exhaustive, children who experience them will not all become suicidal.
- Violence and home, school or work
- Verbal, emotional or sexual abuse
- Family history of suicide
- Easy access to lethal means like firearms, medications, poison, cars and ropes
- Isolation due to living alone, living rurally or feeling like no one understands you
- Changes like moving or transitioning to a different job or school
- Loss of a loved one or a significant relationship
- Poor health, mentally or physically
- Lack of social emotional skills
- One or more prior suicide attempts
- Failure at work or school
- Unrealistic expectations of oneself or inability to accept failure
- Rejection by peers
- Harassment due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity
- Bullying or being bullied at school/work
- Suicide of someone with whom they identify with or feel close to
- Substance abuse (which includes vaping and dabbing)
- Natural disaster
- Lack of support services
The checklist below is a list of protective factors that may help protect against crisis and/or suicide. Read through them and note which ones you feel describe your child’s current situation.
- Overall has positive physical, mental, and emotional health
- Lives in a safe home and community and attends a safe school
- Has positive, loving and supportive relationships
- Has adults in their lives that they can trust to go to
- Has typical intellectual, social, and physical competence for their age
- Uses Social Emotional Skills (e.g., “ life skills,” like self-awareness, relationship skills, self-management, anger & stress management, responsible decision-making, problem solving, communication skills)
- Has a sense of autonomy, empowerment and boundaries
- Believes their life has meaning and purpose
- Has plenty of time for play and rest
This checklist is for parents who are concerned about whether or not their child is suicidal. It includes warning signs, but is not meant to be a comprehensive checklist. Read through them and identify any that your child may exhibit and then seek support from the resources listed below.
I have witnessed my child:
- Wanting to die
- Great guilt or shame
- Being a burden to others
- Empty, hopeless, trapped, or having no reason to live
- Extremely sad, more anxious, agitated, or full of rage
- Unbearable emotional or physical pain
Change behavior, such as
- Making a plan or researching ways to die
- Withdrawing from friends, saying goodbye, giving away important items, or making a will
- Taking dangerous risks such as driving extremely fast
- Displaying extreme mood swings
- Eating or sleeping more or less
- Using drugs or alcohol more often
If you feel that your child is not suicidal, but may have a mental illness, click here.
Connect & Communicate:
Open communication will be an important tool in supporting a child you suspect may be suicidal. Parents may worry that talking about suicid will make their children upset. However, it is likely they will welcome a chance to discuss challenges they are having. This is not a time to assume they will “get over it,” at some point. It is important to take their thoughts, actions and beliefs seriously.
NOTE: This section is specifically for a child you may think is suicidal. For conversation about mental illness in general, click here.
The Steps Towards Helping a Suicidal Person
Show You Care
Ask About Suicidal Intent
Get Help: Offer to help but recognize your own limits. Do not be the only person offering or providing help.
Offer Hope: Help people understand that life in general and theirs in particular, has purpose and meaning.
How Should I Respond to Suicidal Behavior?
Help Prevent Suicide
- Address issues of anxiety and depression
- Pay attention
- Discourage isolation
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle
- Support the treatment plan
- Find and maintain close, trustworthy friends
- Help them learn to create a positive mindset and motivate positive actions
- Keep a list of people they can talk to when they are struggling
- Be substance-free. Substances interfere with a healthy brain and healthy decisions
- Give them plenty of time for unstructured play time
- Give them permission to tell an adult if a friend seems unusually sad or angry
For direct information and support, use the hotlines provided below:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- The Crisis Text Line: 741741
If you think your child is suffering from a mental illness, but not suicidal, and you want to talk to them about it, click here.
The following activities can help support positive physical and emotional well-being, which can be protective factors against crisis and suicide.
Pay attention and do things with your child: These can be simple daily things like reading, taking walks or doing arts and crafts. This shows your child that they matter to you and helps them create a sense of belonging.
Set up playdates: This can be with neighborhood friends, or friends from school. Many children who suffer from mental illness do not feel connected to their families and communities. Regular time with friends can foster that sense of connection and belonging.
Guess the Feeling: Younger children may enjoy watching this video from Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood to talk about feelings. One protectie factor for suicide is one’s ability to label and express their feelings. This is a good place to start.
Meditate: Find an app like Headspace or other online resources that your child can use to meditate. Offer to do this activity with them to support a positive mindset.
Attributes List: With your child or with the whole family, make a list together of all of the positive attributes that each member has. Put them in a place where you can see them regularly.
Gratitude Journal: Allow your child to choose a fun and colorful journal to write in. Get them to make notes about what they are grateful for each day. Here are some tips for how to do it: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/gratitude_journal
Family Meetings: Getting together as a family each week to talk about goals, achievements and struggles can be a way for you to get a sense of how your child is doing. Not only that, but it can help them feel a sense of belonging and love. Keep the meetings positive and upbeat and a place for them to feel safe to share. You can Google “family meeting ideas” or use this printable here: https://raisingkidswithpurpose.com/family-meeting-agenda-ideas-free-printable/
List of Trusted Adults: Sit down with your child and help them make a list of all the people in their lives that they trust and who they could go to if they were in crisis. Discuss what they feel makes this person trustworthy and make sure they know how to access that person if they are in need.
Find Coping Strategies: It might be helpful for you to share some of the coping strategies you use when you feel overwhelmed or sad. Read through other coping skills with your child and have them identify the ones that they use or would be interested in using when they feel down or anxious. You can start with these resources: http://familyaware.org/teaching-teens-and-yourself-strategies-for-coping-with-stress/
Contact & Collaborate:
As a parent or caregiver, you have an important role in supporting your child’s mental well being. If you think your child may be suicidal, use these resources to get help:
Set important phone numbers on your own and your child’s phone, for example:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- The Crisis Text Line: 741741
- Add your local Mental Health Agencies’ crisis line into your phone
- The non-emergency number for the local police department
- The phone number for a trusted friend or relative
If your child’s mental state is at a crisis level (e.g., they have harmed [or threatened to harm] themselves or others), call 911 or go to your local emergency room.
If you think that your child has a mental health issue, you can click here for more information. In addition, the following resources may help you get the support that you need.
- Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor: Let the doctor know your concerns and give your child the opportunity to speak to the doctor in private. The doctor may recommend a follow-up appointment with a mental health professional.
- Work with your child’s guidance counselor, the school nurse, and other school personnel to secure necessary support.
- Ask the school psychologist, therapist or other mental health professional for advice on how to respond to your child and handle difficult behavior.
- Contact other trusted adults in your child’s life (relatives, clergy, teacher, sports coach) so they can help support them, too.
- Consider family counseling with a licensed therapist.
- Reach out to your health insurance or state/county mental health authority for more support.
- Enroll in parent support groups or training programs, especially those designed for parents of children with a mental illness.
- If treatment has been recommended for your teen (e.g., therapy or medication) support them with managing and maintaining their treatment plan
You will play an important role in ongoing support and monitoring of your child’s mental health. Continue to learn and stay up-to-date on mental health topics. Be sure to take time for yourself when possible- your mental health and wellness will be important in helping your child manage their mental wellbeing. You must make sure you are attending to yourself before you can help others. Below are some additional resources you might find helpful.
Mental Health.gov Parent and Caregivers (website) https://www.mentalhealth.gov/talk/parents-caregivers
National Institute of Health Children and Mental Health (website) https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/children-and-mental-health/index.shtml
National Alliance for Mental Illness: (website) Learning to Help Your Child and Your Family https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Family-Members-and-Caregivers/Learning-to-Help-Your-Child-and-Your-Family
Child Mind Institute (website): Articles on all topics related to suicide https://childmind.org/search/suicide/
The Impactful Parent (podcast): Suicide Prevention https://www.audible.com/pd/Suicide-Prevention-Podcast/B093L9DDK9
Shrinking it Down: Mental Health Made Simple (podcast) When Kids Talk about Suicide https://www.mghclaycenter.org/multimedia/podcasts/when-kids-talk-of-suicide-shrinking-it-down/
Parent Engage 360 (podcast) Suicide Awareness https://www.ahschools.us/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=21&ModuleInstanceID=47725&ViewID=6446EE88-D30C-497E-9316-3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=89416&PageID=35