It was the one phone call I never expected. My child’s high school counselor was on the other end of the line, explaining to me that my son had told his friends that he was thinking about suicide.
I didn’t know how to respond. His counselor told me that she’d spoken with my son and that he had admitted to her he’d talked about committing suicide, but that he didn’t have a plan.
“Why don’t you come pick him up today and see about getting him some help,” she said.
I was completely thrown. How could this have happened without me seeing the signs? Immediately I called my husband, while rushing to get dressed.
“What? He was so happy this morning,” he said.
“I know; I don’t understand either.”
When I arrived, I hugged my son and escorted him to the car, then drove directly to the nearest emergency room to admit him for a psychiatric assessment as his counselor had advised. For 10 hours, we waited in a small room for a qualified professional to arrive and decide whether or not my son was truly at risk. The entire time I sat with my son, listened to his frustrations and tried my best to understand what had motivated him to tell his friends that he was contemplating suicide.
What I learned wasn’t completely new, but some of it was surprising.
For months, I knew my son had been feeling isolated and lonely. His classmates and friends weren’t always supportive and many times, he felt as if no one at school liked or accepted him. That wasn’t the only thing — a few weeks earlier, he also saw the outpouring of love and support when his closest friend was hospitalized for threatening to take his own life.
“I knew I would never do it,” my son assured me. “It’s just that sometimes I wish people were nicer to me. And ever since my friend went to the hospital, everyone’s been really caring towards him. It made me think that suicide was a way to get people to see I was hurting, too.”
Eventually, a licensed clinical social worker arrived and declared my son healthy and mentally stable enough to return home. He told me privately that sometimes teenagers could be influenced by other children who attempt suicide, and that he didn’t feel our son was intent on harming himself.
Even with medical clearance, the experience left me shaken. I didn’t want to leave my son alone, for fear he was saying the right thing to distract us. I made sure to spend lots of one-on-one time with him each day, listening to his concerns and reminding him of how deeply he was loved.
I also felt moved to research the idea that people can be influenced by suicide, and found a piece in The New York Times that explained how suicide rates among young people increased nearly 5 percent when someone they knew, or knew of, committed suicide.
For further understanding, I reached out to Dr. Steven Schlozman, the associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, about this phenomenon of “suicide contagion” and how it impacts teenagers.
“Suicide contagion happens when someone well-known in the community commits suicide, and it leads to an increase in suicides from others who may or may not have known the person,” he explained. “It can even be a fictionalized suicide of a character in a movie or book that triggers this response. What’s statistically significant is that this effect seems to last two weeks.”
According to Dr. Schlozman, it is not uncommon for those in the medical profession who work with children to hear, “I’ve been thinking about suicide.” Youth-risk surveys have illuminated how common suicidal thoughts are among teenagers: Approximately 15 to 30 percent of teens surveyed admit to seriously contemplating suicide, and with higher stress, those numbers can climb as high as 40 to 50 percent.
“Between the ages of 12 to 17, through social and peer influence, thoughts of suicide can be introduced, and the teenager can begin toying with the idea,” explained Dr. Sanam Hafeez, director and neuropsychologist at Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York City and faculty at Columbia University.
According to Dr. Hafeez, most teenagers have one thing in common: a need to fit in and be accepted. Those who feel unpopular or unaccepted by their peers may see talking about suicide as a way to get noticed.
“Negative attention is still attention,” she noted, warning that it is important for parents to reach out and comfort their children, offering them professional help if they or someone they know is experiencing thoughts of suicide.
As for my son, it turns out that although it was hard for him to admit, his cry for help was more about feeling left out than wanting to end his life. Still, it opened a door for both his father and me to make sure he had help coping with these common feelings of exclusion.
“When I told my friends that I thought about suicide,” my son said, “it was just that. A thought. I guess I figured people would understand that I have feelings too. I didn’t think it would end up this big of a deal.”
That’s not to say that a child speaking about suicide shouldn’t be taken seriously. Dr. Schlozman urges parents to be open and communicative with their child if they express suicidal ideations.
“Ask your child to tell you about how they are feeling. No matter how they respond, be open to listening to them.”
He also warns against treating suicidal threats with punishment, which can lead to them shutting themselves off from receiving the help they need.
“Schedule an appointment with their pediatrician, and let them know that no matter what, you’re there for them. If the pediatrician feels they need further help, they can refer them to a specialist.”
It’s now been several months and I am happy to report that my son is learning how to cope with his feelings in healthier ways and no longer talks or thinks about suicide.
“That’s not how I want people to see me,” he said recently. “I want people to like me because I’m a good person, not because they feel sorry for me. I just didn’t realize that before.”
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, there is help. Contact your primary doctor, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, and remember, you are not alone.