Prevent Suicide: Ask the Question
We can all work together to help prevent suicide. Start by learning to ask the question:
“Are you thinking about suicide?”
Research has shown that asking about suicide does not give someone the idea to die by suicide and it does not increase their risk of suicide. In fact, talking about suicide creates a safe space for children and teens to get information, and asking directly about suicide can be the difference between life and death. It offers relief to someone who may be struggling and helps them feel noticed and heard.
Suicide can be an uncomfortable topic for people to talk about. While it might feel hard to ask, it is so important.
When should I ask my child or teen if they’re thinking about suicide? Are there warning signs I should know?
Thoughts of suicide are more common than you might think and it’s important to recognize when a child or teen may be struggling. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between changes that commonly happen as children age and changes that are warning signs of mental health concerns. It’s important to ask your child or teen if they’re thinking about suicide even if you don’t notice any warning signs.
Some things they say or do can be a sign that they are in immediate danger. Watch for a child or teen who:
- Talks about or makes plans for suicide
- Seems hopeless about the future
- Displays severe or overwhelming emotional pain or distress
- Has drastic mood and behavior changes, including engaging in self-harm behaviors, with or without intent to die.
If a child or teen does any of these things, ask them directly, using these words: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Another way to ask this could be: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
For younger children who may not understand the word suicide, other ways to ask might be “Have you ever wished to go to sleep and not wake up?” or “Have you ever thought of ways to hurt your body or make your body stop working?”
What if my child or teen says they are thinking about suicide?
First, do not leave them alone. Stay calm if someone says they are thinking about suicide. You may be surprised, sad or even angry, and it’s important to show empathy and listen well, without judgement. Be ready with a response such as, “Thank you for being honest with me. I am here to help.”
Stay with them and ask “Have you thought about how you would die by suicide?” Ask “Have you thought about when or where you would die by suicide?”
Then, take action right away:
- Connect to professional support now. Contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for help. Call or text them at 988. Chat is available at 988lifeline.org/chat. You can contact the service with your child or teen or on your own to get support. You can also use your county crisis line for help with problem-solving and to request a mobile crisis response.
- Connect with current providers. If your child already has mental health providers, reach out to them for over-the-phone support or an earlier appointment. Contact your child’s primary care provider or pediatrician.
- Remove or lock up lethal items. Reduce the risk of suicide by removing pills (over-the-counter and prescription) and firearms from your home. If you can’t remove them, place them in a safe, lockbox or other secure place. Also lock up belts, ropes, knives and chemicals if your child is in crisis. Start removing or locking up items your child or teen mentioned first. Do not simply hide items.
- Youth who share they have thought about how and/or when they would die by suicide may need emergency care. If they are in immediate danger of harming themselves, don’t leave them alone. Take your child to the closest Emergency Department (ED). If you cannot safely transport them, you can call 911 and tell them you have a mental health emergency. For guidance on what to say when calling 911, review Getting Help in a Mental Health Crisis. You can also use your county crisis line for help with problem-solving and to request a mobile crisis response.
What if they say they aren’t thinking about suicide now, but they have sometime in the past?
Stay calm, non-judgmental, and invite your child or teen to say more about that. When were they thinking about suicide in the past? How were they feeling? Did they tell anyone? What helped them cope? Remember to listen well and thank your child or teen for being honest with you. Acknowledge their feelings through validation. You can say something like “That was a tough time for you. You must have been so lonely. I’ll always listen to you.”
Add the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline as a contact in their phone and your phone. Know that either of you or both of you can call or text the number anytime for support. Chat is also available at 988lifeline.org/chat. Hotlines for Youth provides more numbers for your child to use if they are bullied, depressed, anxious or suicidal. Learn more about ways to safety proof your home and support your child.
Talk to your child’s doctor if you think there’s an ongoing mental health concern. They can help you find care and may direct you to Washington’s Mental Health Referral Service for Children and Teens. Continue to observe behaviors and check in with your child or teen often.
What if they say they’ve never thought about dying by suicide?
If they’ve never thought about dying by suicide, it’s still a good opportunity to have a conversation about the seriousness of suicide. Encourage them to let you or another trusted adult know if they ever have thoughts of suicide in the future. Continue to check in on their mental health. Add the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline as a contact in their phone and your phone.
How common is suicide in kids and teens?
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. Rates of suicide in young children and teens have been going up in recent years. Every year, young people of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, income levels and places die by suicide. This is why it’s so important to ask the question if you think your child or teen is considering suicide.
What are some reasons people consider dying by suicide?
There are many reasons that people think about dying by suicide. Mental health problems, relationship issues, bullying, school pressures, grief, chronic pain, trauma, racism, and working through finding one’s identity are just some of the things that can make people consider suicide. Most people who think about dying by suicide don’t necessarily want to be dead, but they want the pain they feel to stop.
Why don’t I hear more about suicide?
Losing someone you love is always hard. The feelings that come with losing someone to suicide are extra complex. Sometimes families don’t want to share that their loved one died by suicide or attempted suicide because of the complex feelings.
Know that there’s no shame in having a loved one consider, attempt or die by suicide. Mental health problems are common and it’s not the fault of a parent, caregiver or any other family member when someone thinks about, attempts or dies by suicide.
What else can I do to prevent suicide?
Parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches and others in the community can help prevent suicide.
- Check in with the children and teens in your life often to understand how they’re feeling. Listen to their words and watch their behaviors.
- Validate their feelings and let them know they’re heard by saying things like, “I understand you feel left out sometimes.” Or, “That sounds frustrating. Tell me more.”
- Help kids and teens develop healthy coping skills. Ask them to come up with ideas for how to cope when they start to feel scared, mad, sad or otherwise upset. Create a crisis prevention plan before there’s a crisis.
- Notice mental health warning signs and get treatment if you spot a problem. Start by asking your child’s doctor.
- Reduce the risk of suicide by removing medicines and firearms from your home. If you can’t remove them, use safe storage steps.
- Teach your child or teen about mental health warning signs. Urge them to tell an adult if they think they know someone who may have a mental health problem. Tell them to never keep it a secret if someone they know is thinking about suicide.
Suicide can be prevented with safety planning and the right support. Get help from the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 988. You can call or text 988. Chat is also available at 988lifeline.org/chat.
Are children and teens screened for suicide as part of visits with healthcare providers?
National safety guidelines recommend that healthcare providers routinely screen young patients for the risk of suicide — even when the reason for the visit is not mental-health related. At Seattle Children’s locations, we now ask all patients 10 and older if they have suicidal thoughts. Learn more about suicide screening at Seattle Children’s.
Remember, asking about suicide does not cause suicide or put the idea in a child or teen’s head. These screenings are saving young lives.
To Learn More About Suicide Warning Signs and How to Respond:
- Youth Suicide Warning Signs
- Forefront Suicide Prevention LEARN Skills
- Youth Mental Health First Aid Class
- Suicide Prevention: 12 Things Parents Can Do (American Academy of Pediatrics)
- Hotlines for Youth
- Home Safety Strategies
- Washington Firearm Safe Storage Map
To Learn About Finding Mental Health Care for Your Child or Teen:
- Washington’s Mental Health Referral Service for Children and Teens
- Finding Mental Health Care in Washington State: A Class on Where to Start
- Mental Health Resource Hub