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Suicide in your Community - a parent's guide on what to do

A teen, your child, dying by suicide is every parent’s worst nightmare. It’s inconceivable, yet not an entirely “unfounded” fear, given our current stats of 22% of all high school students and 30% of all female high school students had seriously considered suicide within the past year. Only second to that horror is learning about another family’s teen in your town, or a neighboring town, dying by suicide. It’s hard to know what to do as a parent. Do we tell our kids? The truth is, if your teen has social media, is of a similar age, or plays the same sport, there is a good chance they already know.

Don’t Sweep it Under the Rug

People worry that talking about suicide can cause someone to have the idea put in their head. Research has shown time and time again that is simply *not* true. In fact, it can be a huge relief to the person who is struggling to have someone bring it up – and that is what keeps them safe. Don’t think of it as risky to bring up, but an opportunity for important communication.

Suicide Contagion

The horrible truth is that suicide can be “contagious.” And that is when someone (teens more likely than adults) hears about a completed suicide, it increases the risk of other suicide attempts. This is why there are suicide “clusters.

How to Decrease Suicide Contagion - Start Now

Thankfully, there are a few factors that have been shown to decrease the risk of contagion. They include: the way that media presents the information, identifying and intervention for high-risk youth with pre-existing vulnerabilities, and increased communication between parents and their children. Whilst a parent can often feel powerless, increased communication is something that we parents have in our control. Be brave, be proactive, and get the conversation started.

  • Invite your teen to talk - “I heard the sad news that a student in a neighboring community died by suicide. I’d like to talk about it for a minute with you.”

  • Be sure to not use the stigma-filled word “commit” – suicide is not a crime, it’s a tragedy.

  • It’s really important not to speculate or discuss how they died. The less info the better to protect against contagion.

  • Let them explicitly know that they can talk to you about their pain without you freaking out. Keep yourself calm and open so that you create a safe environment for tough emotions. You don’t want them to hold back because they are worried about your reaction.

  • The question of why is understandable and also complicated. Simply say that they were struggling with their mental health.

  • Be sure that you and your child know that there is help out there. Even if they saw a therapist before and “it didn’t work,” doesn’t mean there aren’t others that can help. Remember, therapy and therapists are like restaurants - some you like and some you don’t. Don’t give up.

  • Just like you teach your family about 911 in case of emergency, be sure your family knows about 988 – the national suicide and crisis helpline.

  • The following are some of the scariest questions you will ever ask, but be brave and do it. You would never want to regret not asking.

Possible specific questions, follow-ups, and responses

Have you ever thought about suicide?
  • If NO: “I’m glad. Please know I’m here to support you if that ever happens.”

  • If YES: “When..?”

    • If in the PAST: “I’m so sorry, thank you for sharing with me. How did you get through it? Do you ever feel that way now?”

    • If NOW/CURRENT, ask: “Do you have a plan?”

      • If YES: “I am really grateful you shared this with me. We are going to seek immediate professional mental health help. I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Do you know anyone who has talked about suicide?
  • If YES

    • If PAST: “That must have been hard, how did you deal with it?”

    • If NOW/CURRENT: “It’s really important that they get the support they need. Let’s call their parents.”

  • If NO: “I’m glad. Please know I’m here to support you if that ever happens.”

Parental self-compassion

These are all really hard things to discuss with those we love, and especially hard if you are a parent whose child has attempted suicide in the past. Know that the news can be very triggering and that it’s also a really good time to check in with your child, see how they are feeling, and revisit their safety plan. It’s really important that you be gentle and take care of yourself, even if your child is no longer at high risk. Be out in nature, talk to someone close, and acknowledge what’s going on for you.

Urgent Mental Health Resources in Connecticut

If you are local to me, and you or your child are in need of urgent mental health treatment, please know that New Canaan / Weston Urgent Assessment Program | Silver Hill Hospital (even if you don’t live in those towns) and Urgent Crisis Center | Wellmore Behavioral Health | Waterbury are both well-equipped to help.

Of course, please feel free to reach out to me anytime at or 203.970.4130.

Additional Resources

NAMI Southwest CT local support groups near me

NAMI National to find a support group near you

Helping Teens with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Teens and suicide: What parents should know, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Talking to teens: Suicide prevention, American Psychological Association

Preventing Youth Suicide, National Association of School Psychologists

About the Author

Vanessa Elias is a mental health activist, certified parent coach, speaker, and writer featured on NPR, PBS, and in the WSJ. She is the founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC and serves as a group facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Block Party USA is her passion project. Vanessa helps parents achieve healthier family relationships and lasting, meaningful connections.


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