Let’s Talk About Teen Suicide

On the 4th of September 2017, the daily newspapers carried the story of the student in Moi girls who allegedly started the dorm fire that killed and injured a number of students. They stated that the young lady had attempted to commit suicide on several occasions. The internet was immediately alive with people taking two stances.

In the same month a few days after this incident, we celebrated World Suicide Prevention Day. I am happy that this day was marked in Kenya, but there ends my happiness. How many people even know this day exists? How many people participated in it? After the event, then what?

Unfortunately, most parents do not know what to do when their child threatens to commit suicide. More often than not, they will brush it off as a phase and claim that they will eventually “grow out of it”. This is not always the case, and suicidal threats from anyone should never be ignored or taken lightly!

Suicidal feelings DO NOT have to end in suicide. We need to smash the stigma and talk through the taboo.

Suicide is the 2nd biggest killer of young people male and female in Kenya aged between the ages of 15-29. Yet suicide is a taboo subject. Stigma promotes silence, which is killing young people every week.

Suicide is still a criminal act in Kenya and to this end we don’t really have exact figures of suicide attempts and successes. Add to this the taboo and stigma around the subject and for the religious the fact that suicide is a sin. As a nation, we should be working towards what is known as a suicide-safer community, which does not judge, or view suicide as a sin.

In a society where you are told that you need to be “strong” and “toughen up” it becomes difficult to open up about what your fears and feelings are even with close friends and family. Words are often totally inadequate to convey the amount of pain a person may be suffering. It is easy to understand that someone is hurting if they have been badly injured or are physically ill. Emotional pain cannot be seen, but it can be just as unbearable. I am sure we have all heard and told people suffering from mental health illnesses to ‘man up.’

Asking about suicide can also have an effect on the person asking. This is because, you may be asking a friend or family member, which can be distressing and you might find the answer painful and hard to wrap your brain round. But it is vital that you ask: ‘have you been having suicidal thoughts?’ This communicates that you are there to support them and that it is OK for your friend or family member to share their thoughts about suicide. You can reassure them that there are services and people to support them and you are here to help.

The more we talk about suicide openly, the sooner we reduce the fear and stigma that surrounds it.

We all have a role to play in suicide prevention. Through open communication you are able to encourage a child to speak up about what they are going though. However, not everyone will be willing to speak up about what they are going through. Understanding the warning signs to look out for is also very important. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Making statements about feeling hopeless, helpless, or worthless.
  • The words they use (“I wish I wasn’t here”, “It doesn’t matter anymore”),
  • A deepening depression.
  • Physical indicators (sleep disturbance, weight loss),
  • Taking unnecessary risks or exhibiting self-destructive behaviour.
  • Changes in behaviour (self-harm, giving away possessions),
  • A display of overwhelming feelings of anger, hopelessness, loneliness, or a sense of being ‘worthless’.
  • Visiting or calling people one cares about.
  • Making arrangements; setting one’s affairs in order.
  • Giving prized possessions away.

Along with these warning signs, there are certain risk factors that can elevate the possibility of suicidal ideation.

  • Perfectionist personalities
  • Gay and Lesbian youth
  • Loners
  • Youth with low self- esteem
  • Depressed youth
  • Students in serious trouble
  • Abused, Molested or Neglected Youth
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Parental history of violence, substance abuse, or divorce


Often people thinking about suicide will have experienced a stressful event associated with a feeling of loss. We all interpret events differently. So for example, one young person may take a break up in their relationship in their stride, while the next teen may feel that the break up is the end of their world. Every event has different meanings and values to each person; always keep an open mind when hearing what is causing someone’s distress, and avoid making assumptions about how they may feel. I have heard it said, that ‘assuming makes an ass out of you and me.’

Almost anything could be an invitation and it is always worth trusting your intuition. If you have an uneasy feeling something is not ok, use this and find out if the person you are concerned about might be having suicidal thoughts.

When asking about suicide it is imperative that you do so clearly and directly, leaving no room for uncertainty. This can seem daunting and even scary, but the person needs you to ask about suicide, so they can share how they feel.

Asking ambiguous questions, such as “are you thinking about hurting yourself” may result in an ambiguous answer. By using the word suicide you are telling the young person that it is OK to talk openly about their thoughts of suicide with you.

Asking leading questions such as “You’re not thinking of doing something silly/stupid are you?” may send the message you will judge them if they are thinking of suicide and result in a dishonest answer.

Papyrus (Prevention of Young Suicide) Advises:

Say “Are you thinking about suicide?” or “Are you thinking about ending your life?”, or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”

Allow the young person time to answer. If they say ‘YES… I have been having suicidal thoughts’, REASSURE them that they have done the right thing by telling you. LISTEN to what they say. It is important not to jump to trying to find a solution to what is causing the young person distress. Listening in a non-judgemental way and showing you are trying to understand what things are like for them are the most important things you can do. Showing them that you care and want to give them a chance to share what they are going through is so important. Do not make light of what they say and don’t try to change the subject. Just listen. Reassure them that you can look for support together, if they feel unable to do it alone.

If you find the young person has already taken steps to take their own life, ie has already taken drugs or drank poison, call the emergency services immediately or get them to  immediately

 If they say ‘NO, I’m not thinking about suicide’, then they know that you are a safe person to come to if they think of suicide in the future. Many people worry that asking about suicide might put the idea into a person’s head, or offend or anger them in some way, however research indicates that asking does not increase the risk.

It is also unlikely that a person will be angry or offended, but relieved you have invited them to talk about how they are feeling. Many young people feel they are a burden or undeserving of support or will not be taken seriously. By asking the question, you are showing that you are ready to listen and will help them to access support. Not asking is too great a risk to take. Asking could save a young life.

Lastly, here are a few things parents can do to prevent youth suicides.

  • Form a good relationship with your teen. This can be done by providing stable, safe physical and emotional spaces at home. Spending quality time with your teen. Listening to your teen and not only what they say, but their body language too. Being supportive and not intrusive. Encouraging appropriate expression of emotions especially with the lads.
  • Early intervention in stressful situations. Remember, if you are feeling stressed, what must your teen be feeling?
  • Take suicidal threats seriously and any indications of self-harm. So cutting, burning themselves with cigarettes, over dieting.
  • Early detection and management of psychiatric illnesses especially if it runs in the family.
  • Appropriate intervention after suicide attempts. Research shows that a person who has attempted suicide will try again within the year if it is not handled well.
  • Be vigilant of change in behaviour
  • Seek advice or help from a professional when in doubt

We need to start having these conversations sooner rather than later because as it stands, we are doing our young a disservice.

Do you have any additional useful advice you wish to share? Kindly leave it in the comment section below.

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