September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is not something anyone wants to think about, much less become familiar with. I have spoken often with despondent parents whose worst nightmare has become reality—their child has expressed thoughts of suicide. They are terrified, and no one they know talks about it. And when it happens to us as parents, we often have no idea what to do. Because we’re scared in the moment, our decision-making is clouded.
Caring for your child if they have expressed thoughts of suicide
This article is simply the parent-to-parent support I wish I’d had when those moments presented themselves. I share this with full permission of my kids who have experienced suicidal ideation and, thankfully, survived. Three of our four children have experienced these horrible thoughts. The combination of early trauma and mental illness takes a devastating and debilitating toll on their brains. But we nevertheless share a fierce conviction that we want these experiences to be able to comfort others with the comfort God gave us (2 Cor.). Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way:
First, take thoughts of suicide seriously. You will likely feel terrified, but the most important thing is to project love and nurture for your child like never before. Please show up for them in the most nurturing and loving way you can, even if you feel like they are being dramatic, seeking attention, or not counting their blessings. Beg God to help you; he will. Don’t minimize their pain, sermonize to them, or try to reason with them. Instead, be compassionate, tender, and fully attentive.
The second most important thing is to be calm and confident with your child. On the inside, you will likely feel anything but. You can say something like, “Sweetheart, I’m so glad you shared this with me, everything is going to be OK. We’re going to get you the help you need, and we’ll be right there with you every step of the way. You won’t always feel this terrible.”
Third, get professional help ASAP. Christian brothers and sisters, unless your pastor is a licensed clinical mental health provider, professional help for thoughts of suicide, is not the pastor or youth pastor. By all means, inform them later for prayer and practical support, but right now your child needs professional help. Don’t let fear prevent you from getting them what they need.
If your child has thought about a suicide plan, keep them in the line of sight at all times, even if that “feels excessive.” If your child is a danger to himself or anyone else, call 911 immediately. You may feel like you’re overreacting, but the old adage exists for a reason: better safe than sorry. If it’s safe to (for example, you have another person to sit with your despairing child while you drive, and you have safety locks on the doors), go ahead and drive straight to an ER to start the process of a behavioral health assessment and evaluation. Before this situation happens, know the behavioral health crisis lines, walk-in centers, or psychiatric hospitals in your city.
If your child’s suicidal condition meets criteria, he or she might be put on an involuntary hold for his or her own safety. This means that for a short period of time, the hospital has the legal authority to ensure the safety of your child. It’s always best to authorize your child’s admittance voluntarily if the professionals deem it’s warranted so they don’t have to exercise the legal option of an involuntary hold.
Parents, if this happens, it may feel like the world is coming to an end. I have spent literally hundreds of days in psychiatric hospitals. I have wept in their halls outside the view of my child. It isn’t as horrible as it feels. Your world is not coming to an end, and neither is your child’s. Your child is getting the professional help he or she needs, and you, as their loving and responsible parents, are making sure of that. Stay nurturing, calm, and confident for and around your child.
If your child is admitted, assure him that while it’s scary, it’s good that he is getting help and that he’ll be back home just as soon as he is healthy and ready. Assure him you’ll talk on the phone and visit often.
And repeat often how proud you are of her for voicing her feelings; how brave she is for receiving help; how, while she can’t know this now, you know she’ll not always feel this way. Tell her it’s okay if she doesn’t have hope—she can borrow yours.