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Suicide shouldn’t be a bad word.
Our fear of the topic doesn’t help anyone. I am a trauma psychologist and mother and my little brother committed suicide. I know how afraid we can be of that word.
Dave was 33 when he died and I could hardly bear to put the word in my mouth for fear that his tragic death would increase the risk of that type of death among my remaining family members. My grief has influenced how I talk to my sons, who are now 16 and 12, about suicide risk and general mental health.
We need to tell our children the word suicide, explain what it is and why it sometimes happens, and what to do when they have suicidal thoughts. Parents are the first responders to the psychological needs of our children. The safe space of our families is the best place for difficult conversations that feel scary.
The worst-case scenario is that suicidal thoughts grow secretly, silently, without the sufferer knowing how to label their feelings. Young people should have language for thoughts of self-harm, know that these thoughts are fairly common, and have a plan for what to do when they arise. Avoiding the topic is not a prevention strategy. In fact, we have seen that opening channels of communication has improved access to help.
Statistics released Sept. 19 by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) show an increase in calls for suicide prevention and crisis support since mid-July, when the country launched the new statewide 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
To mark Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, MDH announced that calls have increased by 44% and texts by 250% since switching to 988 on July 16. Minnesota has also seen a 173% increase in web chats since January 2022. State officials believe the increase is largely due to the number being easier to remember.
It’s humbling to think that more and more people are turning to professional help for something as simple as giving them a forum to talk about.
These statistics show the extent of our need to talk about suicidal feelings, and this extends to our children.
Among adolescents and young adults (15-24 years), MDH data show that Minnesota has a higher suicide rate (15.5 per 100,000) than the national rate (14.5 per 100,000). The suicide rate among young Minnesotans has long exceeded the US average.
Suicidal thoughts, attempts and executions among young people are also increasing.
Of course, it’s difficult to talk about. As parents, we know we need to talk to our children about sexual activity and drug use before they expose it. Ten o’clock on a Saturday night is far too late to start a first conversation with your 17-year-old about specific drivers, condom use, or sexual consent.
Same with suicidal thoughts. Mental health literacy is critical and needs to be disseminated throughout the developmental period of our children’s lives to help them deal with nuanced and complex emotions. It can bring great benefit to those who face this type of death.
Research has shown that talking about suicide does not increase a child’s risk. That should be our message: Talk to me. tell someone Call 988. You are not alone.
Sherry Walling from Minneapolis is a clinical psychologist. Her books include How to Run Your Business Without Letting It Run You and Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss.