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Supporting young people at risk of suicide

suicideSuicide is a leading cause of death worldwide, particularly for children and young people aged 10 to 24 years.[1] In Australia, there are more people who die through suicide than road accidents, skin cancer or homicide.[2] Statistics show that there are approximately 2,200 deaths by suicide in Australia in any given year. In 2009, 259 suicides were recorded by young people aged 15 to 24 years.[3]

During 2011, Kids Helpline provided 8,972 counselling sessions for young clients who either sought counselling for a 'suicide-related concern' or disclosed having current thoughts of suicide. These young people were either having suicidal thoughts or plans, or were actually attempting suicide at the time of contact.[3]

This hot topic has been prepared to assist parents and carers increase their understanding about suicide. It also provides information on how to support children and young people who may engage in suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

Definition of terms

To provide a better understanding of this hot topic, some definitions are below:

  • Suicide - refers to the intentional taking of one's own life. A person's death is classified as a suicide by a Coroner if evidence shows that 'the person died as a result of a deliberate act to cause his or her own death'[4]
  • Attempted suicide - is the deliberate harming of one's self, where the intention was to die but did not result in death
  • Suicide thoughts (or suicidal ideation) - are the thoughts and/or plan to take one's own life. These thoughts may or may not cause a person to attempt suicide

Why do suicides happen?

There is no single explanation why people attempt or complete suicide. Everybody experiences feelings of anger, sadness, humiliation, or helplessness from time to time. We all face challenges and major setbacks at some point in our lives. Each person's emotional make up is unique, and we respond to situations differently.[5]

In a nutshell, people may want relief from the intense emotional pain they are experiencing. When all attempts to communicate their distress are left unheeded and not responded to, a person may give up and may attempt or complete suicide. For example, a person may:

  • want an escape from their perceived failure while at the same time be extremely worried about disappointing family or friends
  • be feeling useless, unloved, or thinking they are just a burden to others
  • be feeling angry or guilty about something they have done

It is important to remember that not all people who attempt suicide really want to die. They may be desperately trying to get out of a complex situation, or trying to change it in some way.

What are the signs to look out for?

Eighty percent of people who complete suicide give warning signs.[6][7] It is therefore important that parents and carers are able to recognise the signs of emotional distress of a young person so that timely intervention can be provided.[8] These signs may include:

  • sudden changes in behaviour and attitude
  • increased drug and/or alcohol use
  • self-inflicted wounds (cigarette burns, cuts, etc.)
  • hint of suicidal intent such as "I'd like to go to sleep and never wake up" or "I don't want to live anymore"
  • giving away possessions
  • making or buying stuff with a recurring theme of death
  • the presence of risk factors (listed below)

What are risk factors?

People often think a particular incident 'causes' suicide, but the reality is, suicide can happen for a combination of reasons - often these issues have been going on in a young person's life for sometime.

Kids Helpline has found that callers may be at risk of suicide if they are experiencing one or more of the following factors:

  • mental health issues (including untreated or undiagnosed depression)
  • high level of drug and/or alcohol use
  • low self-esteem
  • feelings of isolation and disconnectedness
  • violence and/or abuse (either current or in the past)
  • unresolved trauma
  • easy access to firearms, drugs, and other potential means for self-harming[9][10]
  • events which include any serious loss, distress or embarrassment such as:[11]
    • loss through death, divorce or moving house
    • relationship conflict or breakdown
    • perceived failure in education or work (including chronic unemployment)
    • bullying
    • being in trouble with judicial authorities (or incarceration)
    • serious illness or sudden disability
    • unplanned pregnancy
  • deliberate self-harm* or suicide attempts
  • family history of suicide or family members exhibiting suicidal behaviours
  • feeling stigmatised by others due to the presence ofmental health issues

Also, suicide impacts on many people. Family members, friends, school mates, work colleagues and people who identify with the person who has taken their own life may experience significant personal, social and financial impacts. People who are bereaved by suicide may experience a decline in their own physical health, develop mental health issues and may also become at risk of suicide themselves.[2] Kids Helpline believes that anyone experiencing the suicide of a loved one may need to seek help and support.

*[Please refer to our Hot Topic on Self-injury/Self-harm to understand the distinction between attempted suicide and self-harm].

Protective factors

Even though the presence of risk factors may increase the vulnerability of a young person in relation to suicide, the extent of their impact depends in part on the presence of protective factors.

Protective factors can safeguard a young person against suicide despite the presence of distressing events or situations in their lives,[10] and include:

  • caring and supportive family, carers and friends
  • a sense of connection and responsibility to family, friends and other people
  • access to support networks
  • positive self-esteem
  • effective help-seeking and communication skills
  • early identification and appropriate treatment of physical and/or mental health issues
  • addressing substance use issues
  • knowledge and willingness to implement personal safety strategies
  • safe home environment (reduced access to potential means of self-harm)
  • positive school and/or workplace experience (if the young person is a student and/or employed)

What can parents or carers do?

Young people who contemplate suicide often feel disconnected from everyone around them. Your support as a parent or carer can help reduce their sense of isolation and desperation. If you believe your child is having unsafe thoughts or is showing signs of emotional distress it is important to reach out and start a conversation about what is going on for them. There is no easy way to start this conversation, but it is important that you do. Listed below are some tips on how to start a conversation about suicide:[12]

You can begin with:

  • 'You look a bit down today, I'm wondering how you are doing.'
  • 'I may not understand exactly how you feel, but I care and I'm willing to help.'
  • 'If there's something that's been bothering you, feel free to talk to me.'

You can also ask:

  • 'I've been worried about you lately, is everything okay?'
  • 'Did something happen that upset you?'
  • 'Is there anything that I can do to help?'

Below are some other strategies that may also help your child stay safe:[8][13][14]

  • Get medical assistance as soon as possible. If circumstances allow, it is advisable that you accompany your child to the doctor. This could provide an opportunity to ask questions and clarify things
  • Be aware of your own feelings and reactions. It is crucial to remain calm and supportive, and not ignore the issue. Taking your child's words seriously may help them feel supported and reduce their feelings of isolation or rejection
  • Maintain a safe home environment by removing access to any means of suicide such as drugs and alcohol, firearms and other potential devices for self-harming
  • Encourage your child to seek help whenever they feel unsafe. Emphasise the importance of communicating and sharing with you or with trusted friends and other significant people. You may also encourage them to contact Kids Helpline or other reputable counselling services
  • Ask your family doctor for a mental health care plan.[15] Try to involve the school (and/or the workplace when applicable) so they know what to do in an emergency situation and to help prevent relapse. It is crucial that all possible support is enlisted to help a young person stay safe
  • Continue being observant. Look out for signs that might indicate distress or further thoughts of suicide.[16] If your child is recovering from depression, follow up to see how they are going and check if additional help is needed. If the young person appears to have an immediate intention to suicide, contact emergency services as soon as possible
  • Lastly, as a parent or carer of a young person at risk of suicide, you may need to seek support yourself to help you through this time. Do not attempt to do everything on your own. Try to seek the support of friends and relatives, or a counsellor as you help your child through their recovery

Something to remember

A young person contemplating suicide often has opposing feelings about whether or not they really want to die. This means that there is always a chance that they may change their minds if they receive timely and appropriate support.

Who can I contact for more information?

You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.

Helpful links

You may find the following websites helpful if your child is showing signs of depression or is at risk of suicide:

References

  1. Suicide Prevention (SUPRE), 2009. Mental Health. World Health Organisation. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int// on 7 June 2011.
  2. Suicide and Suicide Prevention in Australia, 2010. Breaking the Silence: A Seminal Report. Retrieved from: http://suicidepreventionaust.org// on 6 June 2011.
  3. Reporting suicide and mental illness, 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.mindframe-media.info/ on 2 June 2010
  4. Living is for Everyone, 2007. Statistics on suicide in Australia: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/ on 7 June 2011
  5. Stringer, K. , 2011. Why do people kill themselves? Kathi's Mental Health Review. Retrieved from: http://www.toddlertime.com/ on 7 June 2011
  6. Is someone you know considering suicide? (A Fact Sheet). University Counselling Service. Curtin University of Technology. Retrieved from: http://counselling.curtin.edu.au/ on 6 June 2011.
  7. Living is for Everyone, 2007. I know someone who is feeling suicidal: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/ on 2 June 2011.
  8. The Australian Psychological Society, 2011. Understanding and preventing suicide in young people. Retrieved from: http://www.psychology.org.au/ on 3 June 2011.
  9. Beautrais (1999) Risk Factors for Suicide and Attempted Suicide Among Young People (a Literature Review). p247.
  10. Living is for Everyone, 2007. Risk and Protective Factors: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/ on 2 June 2011.
  11. The Australian Psychological Society, 2011. Understanding and preventing suicide in young people. Retrieved from: http://www.psychology.org.au/ on 3 June 2011.
  12. HelpGuide. (n.a.). Suicide Prevention. Spotting the Signs and Helping a Suicidal Person. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/suicide_prevention.htm on 23 April 2012.
  13. Kids Helpline Newsletter 3rd edition, 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.kidshelp.com.au/ on 30 May 2011.
  14. Living is for Everyone, 2007. I don't know what to do, I don't know what to say: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/ on 14 June 2011.
  15. GP Mental Health Care Plan, n.d. What is a GP Mental Health Care Plan: A Fact Sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.racgp.org.au/ on 6 June 2011.
  16. Warning Signs, 2010. Suicide Call Back Service. Retrieved from: http://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au/ on 2 June 2011.

Published: 17 May 2012