How to Talk to Kids About Depression & Suicide

In the wake of recent, heartbreaking celebrity suicide news, parents may want to address mental health, depression, and suicide with children. Here's how experts suggest doing that most effectively. 
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Discussing and prioritizing mental health with your child is always a good idea, but high-profile suicides in the headlines may make the subject feel even more urgent for parents. What's more, a new Vital Signs report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to an unnerving trend that suicide rates have been rising in nearly every state.

Suicide Rates on the Rise

According to the report, in 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes that are on the rise.

“Suicide is a leading cause of death for Americans—and it’s a tragedy for families and communities across the country,” said CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, MD, in a press release. “From individuals and communities to employers and healthcare professionals, everyone can play a role in efforts to help save lives and reverse this troubling rise in suicide.”

The report stemmed from state-level trends in suicide rates from 1999-2016, as well as 2015 data from CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System, which covered 27 states, to look at the circumstances of suicide among people with and without known mental health conditions. Researchers concluded that more than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death. Relationship problems or loss, substance misuse; physical health problems; and job, money, legal or housing stress often contributed to risk for suicide. Firearms were the most common method of suicide used by those with and without a known diagnosed mental health condition.

The report also broke down suicide rates by state, but found that twenty-five states had suicide rate increases of more than 30 percent. In turn, researchers recommended that states—with the help of every sector of society from government to healthcare to employers and education, media, etc.—take a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention and address the range of factors contributing to suicide.

How You Can Talk to Your Child About Depression

Having an open line of communication about mental health and specifically, depression, is clearly one important way to take preemptive action with our kids. "Start slowly and gauge the child’s interest as you go," recommends Heather Senior Monroe, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker with teen rehab center Newport Academy. "You don’t need to give them too much information. You might start by explaining that depression is like other illnesses that your child may be familiar with, like the flu or an ear infection. It isn’t our fault that we get sick, but it’s important to do things that help us feel better."

Monroe recommends maintaining a positive, hopeful attitude. "Make sure they understand that depression is something that can be cured, like any other illness," she explains. "You can also encourage them to build healthy habits, by letting them know that eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, and meditation can help protect us from depression."

Another tip: "Make sure you listen as much as you talk," Monroe notes. "If they begin to talk about their own experience, encourage them to open up by asking specific yet open-ended questions: 'How does that make you feel?' 'What might help you feel better about that situation?' 'How can I help?' If your child or teen has questions you don’t know the answers to, be honest. Tell them you don’t know but that you will find out and get back to them."

What to Do If You Suspect Your Child Is Suffering From Depression

"Listen carefully when your child talks, and observe their behavior," Monroe recommends. "Whether you’re talking with your teen at dinner or on the phone while they’re away at college, pay attention and watch for warning signs. Never get angry or blame them for what’s going on. If you find out they’ve been having behavior or mental health issues, respond with compassion and invite them to share their feelings and experience. Don’t unload your confusion or concern on them; find a parent support group or trusted friend to talk with in order to deal with your own emotions."

Ultimately, you'll want to make sure they get professional help. "If you’re concerned that your teen is depressed, have them talk to a school counselor, therapist, or doctor," Monroe advises. "It’s always better to address the problem before it gets worse. Be sure to arrange family therapy sessions as well, to make sure your child feels supported and knows that they are not dealing with the depression alone."

Monroe points out that among individuals reporting a lifetime history of suicide attempt, over 70 percent had an anxiety disorder. "Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand," she explains. "Talk to teens about the importance of finding ways to deal with their stress." 

Coping Mechanisms for Stress, Depression, & Anxiety

Spending time in nature can decrease levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. "An increasing number of studies show that mindfulness meditation can help support teen mental health," Monroe points out. "A review study at Johns Hopkins found that meditation was just as effective as antidepressants in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression. Meditation encourages teens to witness their emotions from a distance rather than getting caught up in them. Support teens in finding a physical activity they enjoy, such as running, yoga, or sports. Research shows that exercise combats depression by increasing the body’s production of endorphins, the brain’s 'feel good' chemicals. Doing a physical activity can increase teens’ feelings of mastery and self-confidence."

Reframing stress is another useful tool. A Harvard Business School study several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance showed that people who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who told themselves to stay calm when feeling stressed. Remind teens that failure is an essential part of growth, and encourage them to think of stressful situations as opportunities to learn and improve.

Don't discount the effect of getting enough Zs. "Whether or not teens get enough sleep can have a big impact on their mental health," Monroe notes. "Researchers have found that teens feel more depressed and anxious when they don’t get enough rest." In a study of nearly 28,000 high school students, researchers found that each hour of lost downtime was associated with a 38 percent increase in the risk of feeling sad or hopeless, and a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts.

Finally, Monroe notes that an increasing number of scientific studies show that there is a direct link between diet and mental health. "This is particularly true for children and teens, whose brains and bodies are still developing," she says. "Hence, nutrition is critical at this stage of life."

Additional resources that may be helpful include www.BeThe1to.com and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).  

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