'I had no idea my son was suicidal - until he attempted to take his own life'

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

I had no idea my son was feeling suicidal until the night he made an attempt to end his life.

It still fills me with shame to say that, three years later, because keeping your child alive is number one on your list of parent jobs.

That's what we're here to do.

I knew my son had been a bit down, and we'd been to see a psychologist about managing social anxiety, but even she thought he was okay. She'd given us some hand-outs on mindfulness and meditation and sent us on our way. 

The night my son tried to take his own life, I'd gone out for a few hours, leaving him at home alone. It was during this time that he became anxious and spiralled to a point that he didn't feel like he could take any more.

I had no idea until a concerned mum of one of his friend's texted me some alarming social media posts he'd shared. 

Luckily, I made it home in time to rush him to the hospital, where he was saved.

From that day, my son spent several weeks in a secure mental health unit, and then the past three years under the care of mental health professionals

He's been through a lot, but he's also grown enormously, and just last month he told me he thinks he doesn't need to see a psychologist any more. He even jokes that he's had more therapy than most people will in a lifetime, and that he's now equipped to handle just about anything.

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But the idea that he nearly wasn't around to joke about anything stays with me, and I have spent the past three years wondering what I missed, and what I could have done differently.

So I'm writing this in the hope that it will help another parent out there who may miss something, in the hope that it will stop someone having to go through what we've been through. 

Signs your child may be suicidal

Psychologist Lindy Freedman says there are two types of signs for parents to look for. 

"There are both direct and indirect signs that your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings," she says.  

While direct signs, such as talking about killing themselves or seeking access to something with which to harm themselves, may be obvious, Freedman says indirect signs can be more subtle.

These may include:

  • mood changes, anger, anxiety (excessive worry), depression (deep sadness) 
  • social withdrawal and conflict amongst friends 
  • reduction in their usual activities 
  • sleep issues (too much or too little) and diet changes 
  • hopelessness 
  • purposelessness (expressing there is no reason for living) 
  • reckless behaviour and substance use 
  • non-suicidal self-injury (the deliberate act of harming one's body without the conscious intention to die). 

"It's also important to consider the impact of any significant recent events in their life," says Freedman, "such as family conflict, relationship problems or break-ups; experience of trauma, loss of loved one; being bullied; or struggling to adjust to school demands."

In my son's case, there was definitely anxiety, some social withdrawal, and sleep issues (way too little).

I'd also recently separated from his stepdad and although that was something he was happy about, I realise now the break up drew my attention away from my son while I dealt with my own feelings. 

Freedman says it's important for parents not to beat themselves up. 

"All parents are doing the best they can with the resources and skills they have," she says. 

"When guilt shows up or disbelief that you missed the signs that your child wasn't okay or that you didn't keep them safe, that feeling is telling you exactly what matters to you: your child."

Freedman says that missing the chance to intervene isn't a sign that you don't love your child, but merely that there is more to learn about their inner world. 

"Instead of giving yourself a hard time, put your energy into working out what you can do from now to talk with and support your child," she says.

How you can help

Freedman says it's also important for parents to know that there is help available, at any stage. 

"If your child is about to harm themself or is trying to harm themself, you can call triple zero (000) immediately or go with them to an emergency department," she says. 

This is something I didn't know, until I had to do it myself on several occasions. I always thought you had to be bleeding or having a heart attack to go to emergency or call an ambulance, but you can walk into an emergency department with your child and say you're afraid they're in immediate danger of harming themselves.

They take it very seriously and will assess your child, make sure they're safe, and put you in touch with support services. 

If you suspect your child is having thoughts of suicide, Freedman says parents shouldn't be afraid to ask them directly. 

"Research indicates that talking about suicidal ideation does not increase the risk of suicide," she says. "When in any doubt, ask."

If the answer is yes, there is plenty of help out there, and it's important to know you're not alone. 

"Parents don't have to know all the questions to ask or have all the answers," says Freedman. "A qualified health professional will conduct a suicide risk assessment and support you and your child to develop a safety plan."

As for what you can do as a parent, Freedman says just being there is the best thing. 

"When emotions are strong, parents need to meet their child where they are at; as much as we would like to fix things or get rid of challenging thoughts and feelings, it's best to just acknowledge them ('I'm here for you. You are loved. We'll get through this')," she says.

Freedman says it's also important to understand that those suicidal feelings won't be resolved immediately. In my son's case, it took over two years before he told me one day, while we were doing dishes together in the kitchen, that he was glad he made it through, and that he really wanted to live. 

Every tear that I had been holding in while I tried to keep my son alive was cried that night. 

I know I'm one of the lucky parents, who has the privilege of talking about close calls rather than the loss of a child. As we acknowledge World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, I am reading awful stories of young lives lost, suicide clusters in schools, and parents left behind to pick up the pieces. 

It's important to know that parents can't solve everything, and sometimes there's nothing we can do if a child is determined to end their life. But if knowing the signs and how to reach out helps one parent, this article has done its job.

If you suspect your child may be thinking about suicide and you'd like some support, you can:

  • Call 000 in an emergency
  • visit your GP and ask for a mental health plan
  • go directly to a psychologist
  • call Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
  • advise them to call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
  • visit the ReachOut website
  • visit the Headspace website

 World Suicide Prevention Day is on September 10