A 46-year-female client tells me: “My 16-year-old son came and asked me when I was growing up, did I know anyone who had died by suicide. I got really scared and asked him if he was struggling and needed a therapist’s appointment or if we could help him in any way. He mentioned that 10 September is celebrated as Suicide Prevention Day and after seeing social media posts, he and his friends started discussing how all of them know someone in their friend circle who has talked about self-harm and felt that it’s not worth living. Then he asked me if I could make him an appointment because he was feeling scared and never wanted to reach a stage where he wanted to end his life.”
We are living at a time where our children feel fragile and carry a fear that some of their friends might be harbouring thoughts of self-harm. They worry that they may not be able to see the signs or know how to help or what to do.
Suicide is not an individual problem. Every suicide is a reminder of how we as a society, at a systemic, policy, awareness and then belief level, need to bring about change for people to reach out and seek help.
We need to take collective responsibility for building an ecosystem where our children feel heard, seen and understood. Focusing on making our children resilient may not be enough—preventing suicides means that schools, colleges, parents, lawmakers, and helplines work together to create spaces where there is awareness and access for help available, and a focus on how we can build hope.
Parents of adolescents often ask me what are the warning signs they need to be mindful about. Learning to recognise the early red flags that child may be struggling is the first step. We do know that most adolescents who may be in distress may not want to harm themselves or harbour suicidal thoughts, but catching the early signs can help. If you feel that there is persistent sadness, along with withdrawal most of the days, then check in and also ask them gently how you can help them or if they want to talk about it.
Very often, for young people, sadness can come masked as irritability, anger. While as a parent it may be hard to be at the receiving end of this, remember that it’s a plea for help. Sleep is another indicator, combined with changes in eating patterns, like difficulty falling asleep or skipping meals, respectively. What’s important is to look for marked changes which indicate something has shifted: if your adolescent finds everything effortful, no longer talks about music that they love or the show they want to watch and has a general apathy towards how they look, then its reason enough to explore if they are struggling. We do know that academic pressures, a relationship breakup, conflict with a friend, bullying, cyber bullying, substance and alcohol use or existing mental health conditions can make the adolescent more vulnerable.
Factors such as a suicide in the family, exposure to suicidal behaviour of others, history of sexual abuse also increase the risk. We all have capacity to give and receive help. Both are integral to our well-being and knowing when to seek help is a crucial life skill. As parents, teachers, therapists we need to model behaviours where we ask and receive help when provided, because we know that adolescents learn from what they see us doing.
Begin with trusting what your adolescent is saying, rather than underplaying it, trivialising or thinking that it will pass. We know that if adults panic, make it about themselves, then adolescents will shut down and choose to withdraw further. As a parent, teacher remember that your presence, understanding matters. Communicating that “we will figure it together” is what they need to feel less alone and experience hope.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.