“The thought of one’s child taking his or her own life is so horrifying to any parent that many of us push it to the back of our minds rather than confronting the possibility. However, during the tricky teen years it is crucial to talk openly about suicide and shine the light on a potentially life saving conversation.”
Mark de la Rey, a clinical psychologist at Netcare Akeso Kenilworth says that in a world of extreme academic pressure, online bullying and other social challenges, teenagers will be far better equipped at navigating this difficult subject if they have the opportunity to talk it through at home.
“Parents may be apprehensive about how best to approach this topic. Naturally this needs to be done at an age appropriate level but it is important to remember that children have access to and are exposed to information and misinformation about difficult subjects like suicide – we cannot shelter them from that and treating it as taboo would be dangerous,” he says.
“What you can do as a parent is to help unpack why some people take their own lives and how such a tragedy is not the only option. A good ice breaker might be to suggest watching a TED talk about suicide together and then allowing everyone to discuss their views about it afterwards. You may get an eye roll or two but that is a small price to pay for keeping the lines of communication open.”
Are there signs?
De la Rey points out that suicidal ideation sprouts from some level of depression or a mood disorder, and that suicide – whether attempted or successful – indicates a genuine sense of hopelessness.
“Unfortunately, there are not always clear signs, especially in teens who are high functioning and good at sports, performing well academically, popular in their friend group and so on. This makes it easier for them to mask their true mental state, which they may do to live up to that which they believe is expected of them,” he says.
De la Rey notes that there are certain instances in which teenagers can become so caught up that they are not able to take a step back and regain perspective without some help. “This includes common scenarios, some of which are near impossible to avoid, such as exam pressures and relationship issues. Others may be less apparent such as online bullying or blackmail over compromising photographs they may have shared. The digital environment can be extremely threatening to your child’s mental health and this is an area that needs a lot of discussion.
“Any significant change in behaviour can be a warning sign. Life as a parent is understandably very busy and it can be easy to miss a signal, so it is important to have a sense of what is happening in your teen’s daily life. If you have a child who is usually very active and social but becomes withdrawn, or a child who has always been a home body but now seems to be looking for reasons to stay away, keep a watchful eye. Sudden outbursts of anger and frustration and changes in daily habits can also point to emotional difficulty.
“Sometimes people having suicidal thoughts will do and say things that can indicate plans to end their life. This may come out in careless language, for example, saying ‘You won’t have to deal with me much longer’ or perhaps ‘Maybe we’ll meet again one day’ to a close friend. Such statements are sometimes made on social media, which is a cry for help that must be taken seriously.
Let them know you are there
“When our children are born we are 100% responsible for them and it remains like that for many years. In the case of teens, it is now a transitionary phase where it is natural for them to become more independent and parents need to shift into a more supportive role as teens start learning how to be accountable for their own actions. It is not easy to know when to let go, and if you see problematic behaviour it’s even harder. No matter what phase you are in with your teen, let your presence in their life be known. If they push you away, don’t be put off. They need to know that you are around and that you are there for them.”
According to De la Rey, parents often have a sense that something is off even if it is not clear what the issue is and in these moments it is important to sit down together and have a chat.
Watch your reactions
“Your child needs to know they can come to you with a problem, no matter how terrible it may appear to them at the time. This means being measured in your responses, which is not always easy when dealing with the emotionally charged and sometimes chaotic world of teenagers.
“However, if you tell your child that they can always come to you with a problem and then immediately react with anger or disappointment when they do approach you with something difficult, this can push them away and create distrust. That is not to say that there should be no consequences to their actions, but they need to feel they can be honest and confide in you.
“Ultimately you want your child to feel that they can talk to you when they are facing a seemingly insurmountable problem and for them to know that help is always available. Open conversation is your opportunity to reinforce that message.
“If you know or suspect that your child is having suicidal thoughts, seek professional help. There is always another option and while they might not be able to see it now, there is a way through,” concludes De la Ray.
About Netcare Akeso
Netcare Akeso operates a network of private inpatient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family oriented treatment in specialised inpatient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact [email protected] for further information.
In the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day for emergency support. Psychiatrist consultations can be made through Netcare appointmed™, online at www.netcareappointmed.co.za or by calling 0861 555 565.
For media enquiries, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.
Issued by: MNA on behalf of Netcare Akeso Kenilworth
For media enquiries contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and Clementine Forsthofer
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] [email protected] or [email protected]