Suicide and Mental Illness in Children

Suicide and mental illness are often a touchy subject, especially when it is in relation to children. Most parents are afraid to admit that there is something going on with their child due to fear of stigmatisation or being branded a “bad parent”.

While you cannot predict that a child will commit suicide there are possible factors that could increase the chances of attempted suicide such as:

  • mental illness for example depression,
  • dysfunction in the family,
  • sudden changes in the family dynamic such as separation or divorce,
  • relocation,
  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse,
  • drug and alcohol abuse,
  • family history of suicide,
  • the loss of a loved one, among other things.

Should there be a sudden change it your child’s life, it is important to take some time to talk to them about it, find out how they are coping with the change and what you can do to help.

Mental illness and suicide do have a correlation in that a history of mental illness may in fact increase the chances of suicide. While the sings may vary depending on the condition here are a few warning signs that parents should look out for:

  • Decrease in school performance,
  • Not wanting to go to school,
  • Frequently getting in trouble in school or with authority figures,
  • Irritability,
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits,
  • Withdrawal such as locking themselves in their room,
  • Severe anxiety or worrying,
  • Anger and aggression,
  • Significant weight loss/gain,
  • Constantly feeling sick for example complaints of headaches or stomach pains,
  • Feeling misunderstood,
  • Threats to run away,
  • Threats to harm others or themselves,
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse,
  • Acting younger than their age.

The only way to properly diagnose a mental illness is through consultation with a medical expert. Most mental conditions can be treated/managed; but when a mental condition is left untreated for a long time it increases the chances of it leading to suicide.

However, mental illness is not the only cause of suicide. As a parent/care giver, keeping the lines of communication open is one key way to minimize the chances of your child attempting suicide as it gives you an avenue to provide assistance/support before the situation gets too severe. It is important to note that most kids (as with adults) will be afraid to admit that they are contemplating suicide. You should therefore also be aware of the following warning signs of suicidal thoughts:

  • Making indirect or direct threats of wanting to commit suicide
  • Being obsessed with death in conversations, drawing and/or writings
  • Hallucinations or bizarre thoughts
  • Withdrawing from friends, family and beloved activities
  • Drastic change in personality such as from being upbeat to quiet
  • Sudden changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Change in personal appearance
  • Feelings of sadness, loneliness, helplessness, worthlessness, guilt, shame and/or rejection
  • Giving away belongings (getting their affairs in order)
  • Being aggressive or hostile
  • Running away from home
  • Reckless or risk-taking behaviour
  • Sudden cheerfulness or calm after a period of depression

Parents and/or caregivers should take all suicide threats seriously. If you suspect your child might be planning to commit suicide approach them with love and concern. It is okay to directly but lovingly ask “are you thinking of harming yourself/committing suicide?” Avoid attacking your child, getting defensive or debating if suicide is right or wrong. Instead, listen to what your child has to say without judgment and let them know that you care about them and will always be there to support them. Research, learn more on what they are going through and seek assistance from a medical expert and further support from trusted friends and family. Should your child resume school, agree to have a session with their guidance counsellor who they can confide in while at school since this is where they spend most of their time.

In honour of Suicide Awareness Month, take a minute to save a life.

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