My daughter was eleven years’ old the first time she told me she wanted to die. As she likes to remind me, I didn’t take her seriously.
‘Don’t think like that,’ I said.
By then, I already knew Nora was ill. Her extreme anxiety meant she was barely attending school any longer. I assumed her anxiety was school-related. When she wasn’t in school, Nora seemed okay. She was able to carry on with her out of school activities and seemed happy being with her friends. She was still engaged with life.
When she told me she wanted to die, I didn’t believe for one second that she meant it. Also, she was eleven. It simply never occurred to me that an eleven-year-old child might have suicidal thoughts.
I was wrong.
The last six months have been a journey of discovery about mental illness in general, and childhood depression in particular. I have read harrowing stories of childhood suicides. I have watched my own daughter try to kill herself more than once.
Too frequently, when children talk of suicide it’s seen as ‘a cry for help’. I’m sure it often is. Sometimes, however, when a child says they want to kill themselves they mean exactly that. Their existence at this time is so horrific all they can think of is ending it.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people in the UK. It accounts for 14% of deaths in 10 – 19-year olds. Over half of children who commit suicide have a history of self-harm.
I’m not saying if your child is self-harming they are also considering suicide. I’m saying it’s a possibility. My daughter was eleven the first time she self-harmed. She was still eleven the first time she tried to kill herself.
If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re a parent who’s worried about your child. Maybe your child is self-harming and you’re scared about what else they might do. Or perhaps your child has already expressed suicidal thoughts and you’re still reeling from the shock.
Whatever your personal circumstances, I started this blog to help other parents. So, for you, here are some things I’ve learned about what to do – and not do – when your child tells you they want to die.
Don’t think they’re too young
I genuinely had no idea children as young as eleven would consider killing themselves. It may not be common for eleven-year-olds to commit suicide, but it certainly happens. Between 2005 and 2014, 98 children aged between 10 and 14 killed themselves in the UK.
The support group Healing Untold Grief (HUGG) was set up by the parents of an eleven-year-old girl who killed herself.
If your child starts talking to you about suicide, listen. Never think, ‘oh you’re far too young to think like that.’
Don’t think ‘not my child’
Until Nora got sick, I lived in this bubble where I believed ‘bad things happened to other people’s children’.
Yes, I’d heard tragic stories of children who’d killed themselves. I simply didn’t believe that one of my own children might ever contemplate such a terrible, desperate act.
Don’t promise to keep secrets you can’t keep
Your child will be deeply ashamed and traumatised about their suicidal thoughts. When they finally work up the courage to tell you what they’re thinking, they may ask you not to tell anyone else.
This isn’t a promise you can keep, so don’t make it in the first place. Trust is important in any parent-child relationship. It’s crucial when you’re trying to support your child with their mental illness.
If you make a promise you can’t keep (and you cannot keep this a secret; you must get professional help), you’ll break that trust. If that happens, you won’t be able to help your child.
Do remain calm
This is difficult. When you realise your child has suicidal thoughts, you will feel shocked, upset and overwhelmed.
So, let me say this: suicidal thoughts are not the end of the world.
There are different ways of finding out your child has suicidal thoughts. They may tell you they want to die. You may know nothing about it until they actually try to kill themselves. I didn’t realise how suicidal Nora really was until she tried to cut her wrists.
I didn’t react well. I panicked, I got upset, I thought my world as I knew it had come crumbling down.
You know what? My world is still here. Nora is still here. And now, thanks to my increased awareness of her illness, we are able to talk openly about her suicidal thoughts and feelings.
I am able to remain calm when she tells me she is ‘feeling very suicidal today’. I know when she tells me this, she needs a hug. More than anything, she needs to feel safe. The best way I can let her know she is safe is by remaining calm and simply being there for her.
It’s not easy. None of this is easy. But knowing the right way to respond, and knowing that is helping your child, can be an enormous comfort.
Do discuss it openly
Yes, this is hard too. Heartbreakingly difficult, in fact. But you don’t really have a choice. Your child is suicidal. You need to understand what this means, and – crucially – what you can do to keep them safe.
You need to ask them questions. Lots of questions. This really is okay. I was scared – very scared – that asking questions would ‘put ideas into her head’. Nah. Those ideas are already there.
So, try to find out what methods your child is considering, and also if they’ve thought about when they might do something. Are they planning to cut their wrists or throw themselves in front of a train or try to hang themselves? Have they decided on a particular date (Christmas, Easter, birthday, new school term)?
I know this is deeply upsetting. But remember, knowledge is power. If you know what your child is thinking, you can do so much to prevent them going through with it. You can lock up knives and other sharp objects. You can hide prescription drugs. You can take away dressing gown cords and belts. You can lock upstairs windows.
Crucially, you will understand the moments when your child is most likely to try something. You will know the moments in the day (or week or month) when you need to be at your most vigilant.
I know you might do all these things and they may not be enough. But your actions might keep your child safe if – in that moment when everything gets too much – they are unable to hurt themselves because you’ve put measures in place to stop this happening.
Do get help
If your child has suicidal thoughts, they need help. Your family needs help. Please do not make the mistake of thinking you can do this alone.
Make an emergency appointment with your GP. Insist on a CAMHS referral. If your GP can’t arrange this, or the waiting list for CAMHS is too long, take your child to the emergency unit at your local hospital. Insist on getting your child assessed by a mental health expert. Tell every doctor, nurse and mental health professional you speak to that you are worried about your child’s safety. Ask to be kept in overnight if you are worried you won’t be able to keep your child safe at home.
If you are at home and you think your child is in danger, dial 999 right away. Do not wait.
Most of all, when you are going through the worst of times, know that they will pass. Your child will get better. You will both wake up one day soon and this dreadful black cloud that has fallen over your life will have cleared.
In the meantime, dear parent, stay strong for your precious child.