Suicidal Thoughts and Depression in Children

How To Handle This Painful and Difficult Situation

Depressed Child
Depressed Child. McCarthy / Stringer / Getty Images

Depression reportedly affects about two percent of children, a fact that is heartbreaking on its own. Among the usual symptoms of depression, however, is one that is especially terrifying for parents: suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of killing oneself, can accompany depression even in children.

How Can I Tell If My Child Is Having Suicidal Thoughts?

Suicidal thoughts, also known as ideation, may not always be completely obvious to others...

not even to a child's parents. Especially because a child with suicidal thoughts will probably not speak directly about them. Instead, these thoughts may manifest though an interest in and/or preoccupation with suicide or death. You may notice signs of these burgeoning interests in your child's clothing, media intake, or writing, or in the way they identify with others who have these interests.

On the other hand, sometimes a child will speak directly about wanting to "die" or "kill herself." She might even speak indirectly about wanting "to make it all go away" or thinking "the world would be a better place without me."

Typically, however, there are few signs of suicidal thoughts, which may be a function of your child's personality. A shyer or more withdrawn child may show less obvious signs, whereas an impulsive or more attention-seeking child may be more overt about her feelings.

Parents should look out for the more general symptoms of childhood depression, such as feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and social withdrawal.

These are often associated with suicidal thoughts.

And while not all children who are depressed have suicidal thoughts, depression is considered a risk factor for suicidal thoughts and attempts. Additionally, while suicidal thoughts do not always lead to an attempt of suicide, such thoughts are believed to increase a child's risk.

What To Do If Your Child Is Having Suicidal Thoughts

As mentioned before, a child's thoughts may not always be obvious, which is why seeking treatment for your child's depression is so important. A trained mental health provider may be able to pick up on subtle cues of suicidal thoughts by talking to your child, conducting psychological tests, and assessing individual risk factors, such as previous suicide attempts and the severity of your child's depression.

Additionally, therapeutic treatment for depression can help to decrease your child's suicidal thoughts, if she is having them. If your doctor suggests medication, do your homework. Recent research actually shows that the use of certain SSRIs can increase suicidal ideation in children. A multidisciplinary approach to managing your child's will likely be more effective.

If you are concerned, directly ask your child if she is thinking about suicide. This will not give her ideas. On the contrary, she will feel supported if she has been depressed.

If there are any safety concerns, do not provide judgment or discipline; simply remove her from immediate danger, do not leave her alone, and get her urgent help.

Never dismiss a child's suicidal thoughts, and never promise to keep them a secret. Any suicidal thoughts or behaviors should be brought to the attention of your child's pediatrician or mental health provider immediately. If needed, bring the child to an emergency room or call an ambulance.

Suicidal thoughts should be taken very seriously. It should never be assumed that your child is only seeking attention. Trust your instincts when it comes to your child. You know her better than anyone.

Sources:

Andrea Cohn, NCSP. Preventing Youth Suicide: Tips for Parents and Educators. NASP Communique. December, 2006. 35(4).

David C. R. Kerr, Ph.D., Lee D. Owen, B.S., Katherine C. Pears, Ph.D., and Deborah M. Capaldi, Ph.D. "Prevalence of Suicidal Ideation Among Boys and Men Assessed Annually from Ages 9 to 29 Years." Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. August 2008 38(4): 390-401.

National Association of School Psychologists. Times of Tragedy: Preventing Suicide in Troubled Children and Youth, Part I. Tips for Parents and Schools. Accessed: April 12, 2011.

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