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Suicidal feelings in children and young people

The above Suffolk Mind video titled 'Understanding Suicide', helps explain why someone, whether they are an adult or young person, may feel suicidal due to unmet emotional needs.

If you know someone in immediate danger of taking their life Call 999.

If the person is emotionally distressed and you are worried about their mental health. Call 111 and press option 2 for the 24hr NHS Crisis Support Line (for people of all ages in Norfolk and Suffolk).

Suicidal thoughts and feelings - the facts:

  • Suicide is the act of intentionally taking your own life.
  • Suicidal feelings can affect anyone of any age, gender or background, at any time.

Spotting the signs that a child or young person is struggling to cope

A child or young person may feel suicidal if they are struggling with low mood, anxiety or poor self-esteem, along with self-harming behaviour. If they have been experiencing feelings that make them panic, feel hopeless, stressed, worthless or question their purpose, and have been feeling this way for some time.

Things that are likely to cause or worsen suicidal thinking include:

  • Family history of suicide
  • Family conflict
  • Some form of trauma
  • Relationship breakup
  • Adjusting to a big change in their life, (such as, loss of income in the family or moving to a new home).
  • Unsecure housing or homelessness
  • Money problems
  • Feeling inadequate or fear of failure
  • Addiction or substance abuse
  • LGBT
  • Young carer
  • Looked after child/child in care

The ten common themes found to be key factors in suicide by children and young people are: 

  • Family factors such as mental illness, abuse and neglect, bereavement, bullying and cyber-bullying, suicide-related internet use, academic pressures, exam stress, social isolation or withdrawal, physical health conditions, alcohol and illicit drugs, and poor mental health.

 What should I look out for in my child/young person?

  • Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Struggling with depression – see ‘Depression in children and young people' advice page.
  • Their friends are worried about them or are trying to contact you.
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose.
  • Talking about wanting things to switch off or to escape their life. 
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.  
  • An increase in reckless or agitated behaviour.
  • Becoming isolated or secretive when not usually.

Sometimes there are no noticeable warning signs that someone is planning to end their life. 

What precautions can parents and carers take to help prevent suicide?

  • Be aware of what to do in a crisis situation – know what to do if your child/young person has self-harmed, taken tablets or tied something around their neck by reading this guide from MindEd - 'What to do in a crisis situation'.

  • Lock away or monitor carefully all medications in your home 

  • Look out for hidden items in their school bag or bedroom - e.g non-prescription medicines.

  • Look out for any noticeable changes to their usual behaviour 

  • Be aware of what they’re viewing online – someone feeling suicidal will often search online for information about suicide.

  • Be aware of any unusual things they are ordering online - suicide related items – e.g. ladders, ropes.                      

  • Be aware of any negative social media activity 

  • Ask about what emotional wellbeing support is available at their university/place of study if they are studying away from home.

How to respond when a child says they want to die?

It is becoming more common for primary school-aged children as young as 8 or 9-years-old, to say they want to kill themselves. Primary school-aged children lack emotional awareness to communicate how they feel so they might say this if they are frustrated or angry rather than wanting to hurt them self. 

If a child tells you they want to kill them self you should:

  1. Take what they said seriously - don’t ignore it as they are trying to communicate something to you. 
  2. Make time and space to listen and talk about what they have said - be clear that they cannot keep things that are dangerous a secret.
  3. Express curiosity - find out what it’s about and why they feel this way.
  4. Is the problem within your scope to help with? – or is there someone else who can help?
  5. Does the problem require support from a professional?
  6. Make a judgement on their lethal intent – do they need urgent help?
  7. Communicate to others - including professionals so they can support you and understand if your child happens to mention it to them.
  8. Make a Plan – for the next hour or day, with steps you can take to make your child safe. Include in this plan revisiting how they feel in the future.

What to do if you’re worried a child/young person is suicidal?

Parents, carers, and professionals can contact:

If they are in immediate danger of taking their life:

  • Call 999 – Stay with them, or make sure someone is there with them until help arrives - if it is safe to do so. It is important that they are not left alone.

Or you can get help by:

  • Taking them to your local hospital’s emergency department (A & E)
  • Making an urgent visit with them to see their GP
  • Taking them to your local Samaritans branch (For Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds branch walk-in hours go to: www.samaritans.org) Or call 116 123 (free, call any time)
My child/young person has attempted suicide, what do I do?

If the situation is getting worse, and you are worried about another suicide attempt, trust your instinct and share your concerns.

  • Contact your GP, or any mental health professional involved with your child/young person’s care and assessment.
  • Don’t forget to look after your emotional wellbeing as this will affect you.
Talking to your child/young person about suicidal thoughts

What to do if you want to raise the issue of suicide with a young person?

  • Prepare yourself - Know what to do/who to contact for help beforehand and be able to drop everything to take them to get urgent help if they need it.
    Don't be afraid to talk to someone about suicide as this will not make it happen.

  • Start by asking “Are you ok?” - ask this twice as our first automatic response is to say we’re fine when we’re not. 

  • Explain that desperate feelings are very common and are short-lived - they can overcome these feelings. 

  • Allow them to talk without interruption – listen, emphasise and don’t judge them. 

  • Don’t be afraid to be direct and ask the question - “Are you thinking about harming or killing yourself?”

  • Encourage them to talk to someone who can help them find support. 
  • Be yourself and show them you care.

Be aware of these minefields:

  • Children and young people will want to talk to you at all the wrong times. For instance, when you’re focussed on driving or in a hurry. It may be bad timing for you, but that moment has given them the courage to talk to you so don’t let it pass.  

  • Talk to them openly about who they can talk to - suggest they talk to a trusted adult as this avoids putting immense pressure on their friends.

  • A child who is self-harming may be doing this as a coping mechanism or to communicate that they are in distress rather than to end their life. Most people who self-harm don't normally want to die, but someone who self-harms are at increased risk of accidental death. 

Resources for talking about feelings with children and young people

The NHS Choices website has a good advice page on how to start a conversation with your child tiled ‘Talking to children about their feelings’

MindEd-for families website has a resourceful section on Talking to My Child 

My child/young person won’t talk to me what should I do?

Invite them to come back and talk to you when they feel ready to do so or suggest they talk to: 

(These services are free and confidential for children and young people to talk to someone anonymously.)

Resources to support children and young people

Suicide prevention resources:

Support for families affected by Suicide:

Walk With Us Toolkit - A beautifully designed and engaging resource, launched in South Yorkshire.  It is a toolkit for those who support children, young people and families bereaved by suicide.

Rethink - this website is worth a look if you’re a parent/carer, or professional wanting more information on supporting someone.

Young Minds Suicidal Feelings advice - Young Minds also have a 'Parent Survival Guide'.

Childline coping with Suicidal Feelings - advice page aimed at more younger children.

Resources for schools and professionals:

Papyrus has a #SaveTheClass campaign, where they have developed resources for teachers which includes a guidance - Building Suicide-Safer Schools and Colleges: A Guide for Teachers and Staff 

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