What to do When Your Child Attempts Suicide
According to the Miami Herald, 14-year-old Nakia Venant hanged herself in the wee hours of the morning on January 24th, while broadcasting her suicide on Facebook Live. Less than a month before that, Katelyn Davis, a 12-year-old from Georgia, killed herself during another live broadcast. Each news report shows the image of a beautiful young girl, gone too soon.
I clearly remember the first time I considered suicide as a viable option.
I was 18, and had just finished a day’s worth of college classes. I was sitting on Highway 17, on the outskirts of town. I had come to the end of the road. The yellow street sign in front of me had an arrow pointing in either direction, left or right. After months of misery and secretly wishing I could die, I felt I had to choose. I sat in my old Isuzu pickup truck on that hot summer day, and considered my options. Instead of going right, down this unfamiliar stretch of road, I chose to go home, back to what I knew. There was no flash of light, no voice from Heaven, I just decided to give it one more day, one more hour. I decided to live a bit longer.
For the ten years between my first consideration of suicide and the night I nearly died, I continued to perform. I allowed people to see the guy who was always “on” - the good guy, the big personality, the singer, the smiles. Everyone assumed I would become either a preacher or a politician. They got the first part right. I went from being the good student to being on staff at a few churches. I was the encourager, the life of the party.
I can’t imagine what my Mom would have done if I had died my freshman year of college. I know she would have been crushed. And shocked. Back then, no one suspected I longed to die because I was so ashamed of childhood sexual abuse. No one felt the dampness of my tear-soaked pillow as I begged God, night after night, to heal me from my raging porn addiction.
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Look at these statistics from The Jason Foundation:
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2014 CDC WISQARS)
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2014 CDC WISQARS)
- More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
- Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
If you’re reading this after the suicide attempt of your own child, maybe you’re wondering what these statistics really mean. The first take-away is this: you are not alone. If your child was unsuccessful in their suicide attempt, thank God. Now the hard work begins.
The good news? Humans are hard-wired for survival. If you’re reading this article immediately following the suicide attempt of your child, you’re probably in fix-it mode. I would bet you are frantically researching everything you can find right now. You are most likely desperate to help your child. Maybe you’re surprised or confused by their behavior. Maybe you never saw this coming. And maybe you just want it all to be okay, to get better and feel normal again. Unfortunately, you are not the savior of the world, neither is the psychiatrist, and a psych ward isn’t going to magically make your loved one reappear as good as new.
What do I do now?
But remember this: there is no normal. There is only today. There is only this moment. You can’t change yesterday and tomorrow is far too predictable to even begin to predict. From my experience, trying to put former expectations on what life (behavior, goals, etc.) should be like, just won’t work. Former things don’t fit. It’s literally back to the drawing board, especially during the early days of recovery. Be patient with yourself and those you love. This is a new experience, a new leg of the journey. And you’ll make it, if you’re committed to the hard work.
After a suicide attempt, nothing else seems to matter except what is happening to the person you love. But there are two courses of action. First, you have to deal with the crisis. During that time, you’re putting out fires and taking the hits as they come. As things begin to calm down a bit, then you consider moving toward more long-term help.
Why didn't I see this coming?
One of the most common questions caregivers ask is, “Why didn’t I see this coming?” You didn’t see it coming for a myriad of reasons: Maybe your loved one is an incredible performer, and has not been sharing his or her pain with you. I certainly was. And, assuming this was the first attempt, you probably didn’t know you were supposed to be looking. You can’t put the pieces of a puzzle together if you don’t know you’re supposed to be looking. The Jason Foundation reports that four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs. But they can be easy to miss, especially if you don’t know to look for them.
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In my own situation, I was faking it. Faking life, faking confidence, faking that everything was okay. No one - not my best friend, not my mother, not my wife - knew the depth of my despair. No one knew when I wrote suicide notes for the first time at the age of 18. I sat on my bed in my parents’ basement and had it all planned out. I would end my life the same way my aunt did, by hooking a garden hose to the exhaust of the car. No one in my life knew they were supposed to be watching to make sure I was okay.
But it’s not just the kids wearing all black who might attempt. It’s not just the quiet homeschooler or the angry foster kid. The child who seems to have it all together is just as susceptible to the lies and desperation that precede a suicide attempt as anyone else. In dark moments, it’s easy to believe that death will free a person from the pain, will give an escape from reality, or even will get back at their parents.
Most people don’t know what their loved ones are capable of. Once the truth is known, it is important to encourage them, with professional help, to identify some “red flags” for the future. Tell-tale signs you can both recognize that say, I am veering off the safest path for my life and I need to regroup. Is it a lack of sleep? Are there triggers causing flashbacks? Is it social situations? Or something as simple as low blood sugar spiking their anxiety? Is their depression seasonal?
Here’s a few great tips from The Parent Resource Program of The Jason Foundation:
- Watch and listen to your children and pay attention to sudden changes in behavior that cause you concern.
- Be willing to seek professional help and guidance if you feel your child is becoming depressed or contemplating hurting him/herself.
- Talk openly and honestly with your child or your child’s friends about your concerns and be supportive in helping them cope with their feelings.
In knowing specific red flags, you can begin to create a defense for the future. But even with a great game plan, remember this: you can not “cure” your loved one. Give them space, allow them to own the path toward recovery, and know that this journey is long, difficult, and often unpredictable. But with love, patience, and grace, recovery is possible. I am living proof.
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