Why We Need to Continue Talking About Teen Suicide

Last spring, “13 Reasons Why,” the popular show that depicted how a teenager chose to end her life after experiencing trauma and cyber bullying from her peers, sparked a lot of media attention and awareness about teen suicide.

With filming just wrapped up for the second season of the hit show, conversations about suicide will undoubtedly be brought back to the forefront once again.

And the timing is imperative.

More and more cases of teen suicide are being reported. In fact, current suicide rates among teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are at an all-time high in the last 40 years, according to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

With these staggering results, parents need to take action – with continuous, open conversation. Talking to kids about teen suicide can be uncomfortable, but it’s vital.

“There is still that myth out there that talking about the issue will somehow trigger or give the idea of suicide to a young person,” said Heather Martinsen, behavioral health and wellness supervisor with Prince William County Community Services. “That’s completely untrue. It can’t implant that idea into someone’s head.”

The lack of conversations regarding suicide and mental health is fueled by a stigma, but the more experts and parents openly talk about it, the less stigmatized it becomes.

“The more we talk about mental health as just a part of holistic health, we can raise awareness about this in a positive way,” said Dr. Lee Beers, associate professor of pediatrics and general pediatrician at National Children’s Hospital.

Parents need to understand that mental illnesses are not rare. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children either currently have or at some point in their life, have suffered from a mental disorder.

If a child or teen is struggling with suicidal thoughts, depression, cyber bullying or has experienced trauma, experts agree it’s important for teens to find an adult they can trust and open up to — even if it means it’s not a parent. And, it’s parents’ responsibility to remind them of this.

“That’s something I urge parents to say to their kids,” said Kate McCauley, psychotherapist, family coach and Marymount University professor. “’If there is something you don’t feel comfortable talking to dad and me about; is there an adult you’d feel comfortable going to?’”

When it is time to have the conversations on mental health and suicide, experts agree on this: Don’t preface by saying, “We need to talk,” as your child sits in the living room or in their bedroom. Initiate the conversation in the car, or in a space where you’ll have a captive audience.

“I think the best conversations we have with our kids is not by asking them their thoughts, but to ask them about their peers,” said McCauley. “Are kids talking about this? What are they saying? What have you heard?”

Oftentimes with these prompts, continued McCauley, teens will open up with their opinions. When asked outright about their own opinions, teens often shutdown.

And parents, warned McCauley, don’t fear the probable eye rolls.

“Parents need to be open-minded to any questions,” said D.C. psychotherapist and clinical social worker, Ryan Long. “Don’t explain mental illness with any sort of blame or judgment. Explain mental illness as if it were a physical illness, which takes away the stigma.”

And ultimately, be honest, Long added. It’s OK to not know all of the answers.

Part of the conversation should also center on social media use. Cyber bullying is a big issue in our society, as “13 Reasons Why” addresses with the effects of negative comments and interactions through social media. This is a reminder that high school is a far different beast than it was for today’s parents.

“Just like you teach skills of how to do chores or how to do homework, it’s important to teach skills of how to use technology and engage in social media,” said Beers. Parents should not be afraid to read texts and set limitations or controls on popular social media sights, she continued.

Most importantly, it’s not one conversation. It’s a discussion that starts early and continues on throughout adolescence and into adulthood. It’s never too early to start talking about mental health.

“We want teenagers to feel safe talking to their parents and we want parents to feel comfortable talking to their teenagers about suicide and mental illness,” said Martinsen.

Things can change in an instant. So continuing to check in with your child from time to time is the most beneficial thing you can do.    

Beth Roessner is a D.C.-based writer and health coach.  

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