Supporting a Child with Suicidal Thoughts

Not every child with anxiety or depression will feel suicidal.  However, if you are worried that a teen may be considering suicide try to encourage them to talk about how they are feeling.  Listening seriously to what they have to say and taking action is the best way to help.

MYTH – Asking about suicide puts the idea in someone’s head.  Evidence shows that asking about these thoughts gives the person permission to speak up about it.  Asking about suicide won’t make it more likely to happen. 

Asking a child a direct question about whether they have thought about suicide can make all the difference. For example; Are you thinking about suicide?  Are you having thoughts about ending your life?

Risk factors for Suicide

If you are worried about someone in your care and they have some of the following factors, try to set up an appointment with a mental health professional for a suicide risk assessment. 

  • A family history of suicide, depression, or other mental illness
  • History of physical or emotional abuse
  • Loss of a close family member, friend or classmate by suicide or other sudden death
  • Previous history of depression or other mental health difficulty
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Threats, bullying or violence from peers

Warning signs that a teen might be suicidal

Some important warning signs of suicidal behaviour in children are:

  • Aggressive or hostile behaviour
  • Anxiety or restlessness
  • A change in personality (from upbeat to quiet)
  • Becoming more irritable
  • Expressions of hopelessness about the future (e.g. it’s pointless)
  • Neglecting personal appearance or grooming
  • Acting recklessly (substance abuse, driving recklessly, sexual promiscuity)
  • Sleep, appetite or energy changes
  • Declining interest in friends, activities or hobbies previously enjoyed
  • Withdrawing and isolating self
  • Expressing feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, self-hatred

Phrases or themes to watch out for on social media/online

  • I feel like going to sleep and never waking up
  • I just want it all to stop
  • I hate myself
  • I wish I were dead/I wish I wasn’t here anymore
  • No one would notice/care if I wasn’t here

What to say and do

It’s normal to feel highly anxious talking about suicidal thoughts.  Remember that you don’t need to find an answer, or even to fully understand why a child feels this way.  LISTEN and let them know you care and that there are ways to cope and to feel better.

How to help

Here are some strategies to help a child if you think they are having suicidal thoughts:

Be vigilant – It is very rare in young children but still possible.  Know the warning signs and risk factors.  Ask other caretakers around them to be vigilant too.

Talk with the child – Let them know that you care and that they are not alone.  Empathise with them.  Don’t be judgemental, criticise or blame them. Encourage them to take one day at a time.

Get the child help – Encourage parents to contact local CAMHS service for support. Or go to A&E if needed and use the reputable websites & resources at the end of this article.

High Risk Warning signs

A child may be more likely to attempt suicide if they are;

  • Actively threatening to hurt or kill themselves
  • Demonstrate a preoccupation with death when talking or through writing/drawing/internet searches
  • Preparing to end their life (storing up medication or putting affairs in order)
  • Giving away things of importance

If a child/teen is showing these high-risk signs then take these seriously and get help straight away.

What to do if you feel that a child is in immediate danger

Never has the phrase ‘better to be safe than sorry’ ever been more relevant. If you think a child is in crisis, is threatening to harm themselves or you just have a ‘gut feeling’ that something is very wrong – Get help immediately!  Don’t wait. Get the child to A&E if necessary or ask parents to contact local CAMHS crisis team or call Childline on 0808 8005000.  

Keep the teen safe

  • Do not leave them alone
  • Remove anything they could use to take their own life (e.g. medication, sharp objects, rope, belts)

Where to get help and further information

  • Childline – 0808 8005000 and also online 24hrs a day
  • Papyrus-uk.org
  • Nspcc.org.uk
  • Youngminds.org.uk

Written by Dr Louisa McClean

Clinical Psychologist


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