How to talk to your kids about depression and suicide: Three questions for parents to ask

Published on May 14, 2021

A recent survey by Active Minds found that 80 percent of college students have experienced some negative impact to their mental health during the pandemic—20 percent reported their mental health had significantly worsened. 

The toll can be deadly. 

As of January 2021, Clark County, Nevada, reported eighteen suicides among school-age children during the nine months of school closures starting in March 2020. That is double the amount from the previous year. 

The youngest child to take their life was nine years old. 

Teens and young adults are also suffering. A recent CDC report of 5,400 people between ages eighteen and twenty-four found that 25 percent of them had contemplated suicide in the previous thirty days. 

Concerned parents are finding it nearly impossible to get help, with counseling appointments fully booked because of a tsunami of demand. 

In the wake of these statistics, what can parents do to help prevent the tragedy of suicide? How do we engage with children and teens dealing with depression and despair? 

The HALT assessment tool 

When our children were young and getting bent out of shape, my wife, Nancy, and I trained them to stop and do a systems check using the acronym HALT. 

Were they frustrated or sad because they were hungry, angry, lonely, or tired—i.e., HALT?

Learning to pause and identify the root of the problem helped our children to identify solutions. We all can fall into despair, but sometimes the solution is as simple as meeting our basic needs. 

No matter what age you are, if you haven’t learned to do a HALT systems check, start now. So many of our regrettable actions (including suicide) take place when we are under one or more of these four attacks. 

Being chronically hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can kill you. It can lead to depression and suicidal thinking. 

For example, one of the many factors contributing to our current teen suicide crisis, I believe, is their erratic sleep schedule. Because of social media, constant communication, and the fear of missing out, many teens never get more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

Deep Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) is necessary for maintaining positive mental health. Learning to stop and take a HALT assessment (and do remediation, like placing our electronic devices in another room) is a skill that should be cultivated from an early age. 

But what if you suspect that your child is suicidal? If you believe they might be in immediate danger, asking these three questions will help clarify the best course of action.

Three questions to ask your kids

1. I’ve noticed that you seem distracted lately—can you share what’s going on? 

Begin with something like this: “I’ve noticed that you seem distracted (or preoccupied, different, down) lately—can you share what’s going on?” 

If your child answers, “I’m fine,” you might follow up with, “Yes, but how are you doing, really?” If your child begins to cry, let them. 

Resist the temptation to hush them or tell them that everything is going to be OK. If they are thinking about suicide, things are not OK. 

Be prepared to listen quietly with a handkerchief in hand. Remember, this isn’t about you or your comfort level—it is about them. It’s time to be courageous and get real. 

2. Have you thought about hurting yourself? 

When it comes to asking about hard things, I’ve found it helpful to have a script memorized. Having a script doesn’t mean you care any less—it means you care enough to be prepared.

My scripted question for suicide is “Have you thought about hurting yourself?” It has been proven time and again that being asked does not increase the risk of someone committing suicide—it decreases the risk. 

At some level, your child knows that committing suicide is wrong. I think that most want to be asked whether they are thinking about it. 

They want to share the burden. They want to be stopped. 

3. Do you have a plan?

If your child says they have considered suicide, ask if they have a plan. If they have a plan and the means to carry it through, you must act immediately. 

This is the time to call 911 and say that you are sitting with someone who is suicidal and has a plan. If it’s appropriate, and you are certain that you and your child will be safe, you can take them to the emergency department yourself. At some point, your child may balk and say something like “But I have a big exam tomorrow” or “You are the meanest parent ever. I hate you!” 

I would gently dismiss these diversions. 

You wouldn’t walk away from someone who was having a heart attack if they gave you an excuse. Never agree to keep your child’s suicide plan secret. Suicide is still viewed by society as murder, and you would never keep secret someone’s plans to murder someone. 

Getting your child help is the beginning of their road back to life and recovery. 

When asking about a plan, you need to also ask about the means of committing suicide. If your child’s plan is to shoot themselves, get any firearms out of the house. If they plan to overdose, lock up all pills. You would be surprised by how many people—even trained professionals—forget this step. 

Hope always 

The early church was composed of people like you and me. 

After Jesus was captured by the authorities, his followers scattered. When Peter was asked if he was one of Jesus’ followers, he swore, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:72 NIV). 

Yet shortly after, Peter was willing to stand up to anyone, even if they beat him to death. Why? 

Because he had seen a man come back from the dead with his own eyes. This is what gave him and others the courage and hope to spread the gospel. 

We need to see children and teens come back from the dead, too. Jesus died so that we can have life, and life more abundantly. 

This is what will happen when parents talk to their kids about suicide and take action to embrace hope.

Live perfectly imperfect

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Dr. Matthew Sleeth

Dr. Matthew Sleeth, the executive director of Blessed Earth, was recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life In a Culture of Suicide. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, RELEVANT magazine, CNN, and Christianity Today. For a more in-depth parenting guide on starting and continuing the suicide conversation, email contact@blessedearth.org.

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