Suicide prevention: responding to young people

Pulling them out of the dark ...
Pulling them out of the dark ... Photo: Getty Images

When our children move from childhood to adolescence it isn't just their appearance that changes. The ways, in which they connect, reach out for help and view life changes. They go from seeing only themselves to seeing themselves in terms of their place in the world and challenges can come from that transition. Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. The message of today focuses on the stigma or negative attitudes to mental illness or suicidal impulses. That 'S' word is a difficult concept to talk to our young people about. Along with the uncomfortableness of the word suicide the stigma of mental illness and the fear that is attached can be disabling. It can prevent people; prevent families, prevent young people from getting the help they might need.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in people aged between 15 and 34 years. So how do we break down the barriers and explore the stigma that comes with talking openly about not being okay?

Narmi Thillainathan, a psychologist from Breakthrough Psychology, sees young people who self-harm or express thoughts about suicide in her Sydney based practice. There is no particular family type specific to the young people that present to her ‘While some of these children come from loving, validating and affirming family backgrounds, others also come from dysfunctional family systems’. Mental Health knows no boundaries. She sees the fear on parent’s faces when they come to her after finding out about how their child is coping. ‘It is common to get angry or upset when you first learn about your child’s self-harming. It is important not to get upset with them and take their actions personally, but rather be persistent that they need some help from an expert’ she explains. ‘Dealing with your child’s emotions, your reaction and other family members needs can be overwhelming. Seek support professionally or consider a support group that maybe able to help you’ she offers reinforcing that your GP is usually the first place to go to find out who the experts are in your local area.

So what should parents do if this is something that has never happened within their family? Should they be on the look out or just consider the possibilities of how they should respond. Jo and her daughter Sarah, 15, have an understanding about young people, mental health and responding to concerning behaviors despite not dealing with the issues personally ‘I'd like to think that I'd know what to do if Sarah was struggling or appeared to be struggling with something serious. As to whether I'd know when to act, I guess that's another thing’ reflects Jo. ‘Personally, I'd prefer to over react and be proven wrong. I think it depends on the knowledge you have of your child as well’ she explains. Sarah agrees but is conscious that despite the media and her school telling young people to talk there isn’t really a clear line about how to know when to reach out. ‘The school talks to us about it (mental health and suicidal behaviours) they tell us to talk to someone who we trust. They don't talk about when we should be talking to people though - at what stage,’ she explains. That space between arming your kids with the resources they need but role-playing with them about when the time comes to get help seems to be a grey one.

Jaelea Skehan, Acting Director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, echoes Sarah’s thoughts that offering help and reducing stigma isn’t just about sharing information but about asking young people how they would like to connect. In early 2013 the institute partnered with the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre to hold a national roundtable looking at the issue of young people, social media and suicide prevention. In their words they explained that ‘young people experiencing suicidal thoughts use social media to ask for help, to express themselves, and to find support and acceptance for what they are feeling and thinking’. The key to connection is understanding what works for young people but often these conversations are triggered by fear because ‘sometimes in an attempt to raise community awareness about suicide, and particularly youth suicide, we can fall into the trap of being quite alarmist and focusing on the negatives’ explains Skehan.

The first step for parents, as Thillainathan agrees, is to consult your GP or contact a crisis mental health service so that you can share your concerns and come up with a plan. For young people the first step might be different - talking to friends, connecting with others on social media and linking with the trusted adults around them is key. Skehan reminds us though ‘families need to be empowered, not frightened’. Stifling that fear as a parent can be hard but talking to the services that can help and starting a conversation with the young people in our families might create a foundation for good mental health.

For more information on World Suicide Prevention Day visit

For crisis support services

Sarah Wayland is a Sydney Based Counsellor and Writer (and a mum of two). You can follow her at @thatspaceinbtwn