What should I do for my depressed child/teenager?

Suicide among children and teens often occurs following a stressful life event, such as a perceived failure at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend (or best friend), being bullyied or teased, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a major family conflict (eg divorce).

Factors that increase the risk of suicide among teens include:
  • the presence of a psychological disorder, especially bipolar disorder, and alcohol and substance use (In fact, approximately 95% of people who die by suicide have a psychological disorder at the time of death.)
  • feelings of distress, irritability, or agitation
  • feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often accompany depression (A teen, for example, who experiences repeated failures at school, who is overwhelmed by violence at home, or who is isolated from peers is likely to experience such feelings.)
  • a previous suicide attempt
  • a family history of depression or suicide (Depressive illnesses may have a genetic component, so some teens may be predisposed to suffer major depression.)
  • having suffered sexual abuse
  • lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers, and feelings of social isolation
  • dealing with homosexuality in an unsupportive family or community or hostile school environment
What Can Parents Do?
Most kids who commit or attempt suicide have given some type of warning to loved ones ahead of time. So as a parent, it's important that you are aware of some of the warning signs that your child may be suicidal, so that you can get your child the help that he or she needs.

It's important that you keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love. If your child confides his or her concerns, it's important to show your child that you take those concerns seriously.

Your child's fight with a friend may not seem like a big deal to you in the larger scheme of things, but for a teen, a situation like that can seem immense and consuming. It's important not to minimize or discount what your child is going through. This may increase his or her sense of hopelessness. Most people who attempt suicide have given some type of warning to loved ones.

A teen who is thinking about suicide may:
  • talk about suicide or death in general
  • talk about "going away"
  • talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
  • pull away from friends or family
  • lose the desire to take part in favorite things or activities
  • have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or driving too fast, for example)
More that parents can do
  1. Ask questions
    • Often parents want to avoid questioning if their child is thinking of hurting themselves or thinking about suicide in case they 'plant the idea' in their child's head.

      However hard it may be, it can help if you, not only ask if they are feeling suicidal but mention why you are concerned..."I've noticed lately that you..."

  2. Get help
    • If you learn that your child is thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Your child's doctor can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist, or your local hospital's department of psychiatry can provide a list of doctors in your area. Your local mental health association or county medical society can also provide references. In New Zealand you can call Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or Youthline on 0800 376 633.

      If your child is in an emergency situation, the local hospital emergency room can conduct a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and refer you to the appropriate resources. If you are unsure about whether you should bring your child to the emergency room, you can contact your doctor or call Lifeline on 0800 543 354 for help.

      If you believe your child is in immediate danger we STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you obtain professional help immediately!

      In New Zealand, call 111

      In Australia, call 000
      In the USA, call 911
      In the UK, call 999 or 112
      In other countries, check the Emergency Services of your phone book.

      If you have scheduled an appointment with a mental health professional, make sure to keep the appointment, even if your child says he or she is feeling better. If your child refuses to go to the appointment, discuss this with the mental health professional - you may consider attending the session and working with a counsellor to make sure your child has access to the help he or she may need.

  3. Coping With Loss
    • If your child has suffered the loss of someone close to them, or someone they know has commited (or attempted) suicide, it is important to acknowledge your child's emotions. Some children/teens feel guilty, as if they should have somehow known in advance and done something to help. Or they might feel angry with the person who has gone out of their life.

  4. Have contact with a support group or organisation
    • Seek out supportive people with whom you can talk about your child and your feelings, and ask for their help.

  5. Respond with love, kindness, and support
    • Let your child know that you are there, whenever she or he needs you. Be gentle but persistent if your child tries to shut you out (depressed teenagers do not want to feel patronised or crowded). Do not ask a lot of questions, but make known your concern and your willingness to listen.

      Do not criticise or pass judgment once the child/teen begins to talk (the important thing is that he or she is talking and communicating feelings).

  6. LISTEN
    • This is the most important thing for a parent to do. Listen to what they tell you; listen to their music; listen to their friends as well.

      Don't lecture them, try to solve their problems or tell them to 'cheer up,' and don't over-react when they say they hate you or you don't understand them. Parents who show their kids that disagreements and painful feelings can safely be expressed—and that they can be resolved — make it safe for their kids to open up to them.