Tween Mental Health: When a child mentions suicide

This blog post is brought to you by Hilary T., a founding member of the Synapse Team and Tween Librarian at Dusenberry-River Library.

Trigger warning for discussion of suicide/self-harm.

This blog post contains content that covers mental health and wellness topics. We are not medical professionals, so please always seek the advice or care of a mental health or health care professional to find out how this topic may or may not apply to your unique situation or overall health.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” - Fred Rogers

I am a tween librarian on a mental health affinity team, so of course when I learned that suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-14, I felt shocked. I immediately had a lot of questions. The ones foremost in my mind were why is this happening and how can we help? It turns out that quite a few factors are involved in suicide for this age group.

Children in this age group most at risk have a mental health disorder and/or come from a home life that involves abuse, or other kind of major upheaval in the home or at school. Most significantly, the majority of these children have expressed a wish to die to a parent or guardian that the adult did not pay attention to. Among this age group suicidal thoughts are usually impulsive, a wish of the moment to end suffering. This wish to die was accompanied by feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion.

When a parent or guardian hears any wish to die expressed, they should listen to any such statement very seriously. Depression and suicidal thoughts are treatable. The American Academy of Pediatric and Adolescent Psychiatry says, “The child or adolescent needs to have his or her illness recognized and diagnosed, and appropriately treated with a comprehensive treatment plan.”  The most common way that children this age chose to end their life was either by hanging, by the use of a firearm, and by poisoning themselves. If a child has expressed to a guardian that they wish to die, it is vital that access to guns and all medication should be removed. Guns and medication (even over the counter medication) should be locked away. When a gun was used the child often knew where the where the gun was kept since nine out of ten suicides by a child involve a gun from the victim’s own home or a relative’s home.

In just a few years, from 2019-2021 there was a 73% rise in self poisoning by this age group of 10-12 year olds (CNN). Dr. Chris Holstege, who is a professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics chief at the University of Virginia School of Medicine said, “I think the group that really surprised us was the 10- to 12-year-old age group, where we saw a 73% increase, and I can tell you that from my clinical practice, this is what we’re seeing also. We’re seeing very young ages that I didn’t used to see attempting suicide by poisoning.” Dr. Holstege says the common drugs used were acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (brands such as Advil) and diphenhydramine, which is sold under brand names including Benadryl. Holstege encourages caregivers to keep all medications in lock boxes, even those that don’t seem dangerous.

Some caregivers worry that talking about suicide with a child will make things worse says Dr. Fleisher of UCLA. ”What doesn’t seem to increase risk of suicide is talking about the importance of mental health, talking about the importance of reaching out to people who are struggling, or if you’re struggling, reaching out for help. Talking about suicide in general and talking about depression is not going to make things worse." He encourages caregivers, parents and teachers to proactively check in with all young people, even when they look like they are doing well. He encourages adults to make it clear that if someone is suffering, they want to know about it. “We can all suffer,” he says. “And we all need to reach out for help.”

If your child seems especially depressed, please talk to them as soon as you can. Actively and calmly listen to them. As much as possible contain your own emotional reaction if they bring up having thoughts of suicide (known as suicidal ideation). Hear them out, let them know you want to help, and take them to get professional treatment. Take them to see their primary care physician (usually a pediatrician) as soon as possible. Generally speaking, the treatment is talk therapy and perhaps medication. Tweens always need to know you love them and that you are here for them. That is never more important than when they are suffering. Finding a therapist who is a good fit can be a long process, but it’s worth it. Be actively involved in talking with their therapist about what you can do to help.

If you are afraid that your child might need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 9-8-8 or take your child to an emergency room immediately. Suicidal thoughts are an emergency and should be treated as such.

The information below is from the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

“Thoughts about suicide and suicide attempts are often associated with depression. In addition to depression, other risk factors include:

  • family history of suicide attempts
  • exposure to violence
  • impulsivity
  • aggressive or disruptive behavior
  • access to firearms
  • bullying
  • feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • acute loss or rejection

Children and adolescents thinking about suicide may make openly suicidal statements or comments such as, "I wish I was dead," or "I won't be a problem for you much longer." Other warning signs associated with suicide can include:

  • changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • frequent or pervasive sadness
  • withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
  • frequent complaints about physical symptoms often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
  • decline in the quality of schoolwork
  • preoccupation with death and dying

Young people who are thinking about suicide may also stop planning for or talking about the future. They may begin to give away important possessions.

Asking your child or adolescent whether he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide can be helpful. Specific examples of such questions include:

  • Are you feeling sad or depressed?
  • Are you thinking about hurting or killing yourself?
  • Have you ever thought about hurting or killing yourself?”

No book or online resource is a substitute for professional help (always seek the help of a professional if needed), but the books below might help a tween who is struggling, or the parent of a tween feel less alone and provide some good tips.

Books for tweens that mention suicide:

Things You Can't Say

Fighting Words

Friends for Life

Nonfiction for tweens on good mental health to lend a helping hand:

Perfectly Imperfect Stories

Kid Confident

Kid Confident

Kid Confident

For parents and caregivers:

Girls on the Brink

Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety

Advanced Parenting

Additional resources for parents and caregivers: