Talking to Your Teens About Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
By Laura Hernandez Gold, LCSW-S
Read time: 9 minutes
Knowing the signs and symptoms of mental health and having a sense of suicide awareness are important when raising teens. Knowing how to talk to your teens about mental health, getting your teen help for mental health problems and learning what to do when it comes to mental health and signs of self-harm or suicide can help your family stay connected and strong.
Talking about mental health can be hard. You might have grown up believing that mental health disorders and suicidal thoughts are something private, shameful or even sinful. It's scary to think about as a parent and may feel easier to not talk about mental illness or suicide at all. But think about it like this: if your teenager was physically hurt you wouldn't hesitate to get help. If your teen showed signs of being in pain, you would ask questions. You'd support your teen if they came to you with symptoms of a physical illness, you would make sure they got health care. You should take the same approach with mental illness.
Start Early When It Comes to Mental Health
When is the best time to talk about mental health with a child? According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) - 1 in 5 teens and young adults live with a mental health condition like anxiety, panic attacks or depression and 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14. So, the time to talk with your teen about mental health and suicide…is now. The earlier the better! Don't wait for puberty to talk to your kids about their emotions. Kids as young as 12 can experience a mental health crisis. Make discussions about emotions and mental health normal. It doesn't have to be a bad time; talk about joy or excitement, too. Asking how your kids feel about all kinds of events helps them to see you as someone they can talk to. And listen more than you speak; offering small encouraging responses like "that sounds difficult," or "it sounds like you're feeling sad," will help more than offering advice or dismissing emotions.
Kids will mirror their parents' emotional health. Talking about your own emotions and reactions to things happening in your life can help. This might be easier said than done, especially if you grew up not talking about your own mental health. Letting your kids see that you experience difficult times, anxiety, or depression takes a little courage, but it also shows them how to manage during good times and bad.
Teenagers are a Rollercoaster of Emotion
As your child moves into their tweens and teens, talking to them may become more of a challenge. Younger kids are more likely to share their feelings, and it's easier to know when they're mad, sad or happy. As they grow into tweens and teens they may pull away. This is normal and healthy! You might remember your own teenage years when you were trying to find your own identity. Teens are like a rollercoaster - they can be excited and happy in the morning and then three hours later they are devastated. They are quite impulsive, but that doesn't mean what they are feeling or experiencing isn't important to them.
Understanding Mental Health Signs and Symptoms
Because teens can run hot or cold so quickly, it might feel impossible to figure out what's going on. Understanding the differences between signs and symptoms is important. Signs are what you can see: withdrawal from friends, family, activities they used to like, poor appetite or overeating, poor or disrupted sleep. Symptoms are what's inside: feeling hopeless, unhappy, depressed, anxious, or angry. You must talk to your teen to know about their symptoms.
Want to learn more?
For more information on warning signs, read Kids and Mental Health: Anxiety, Stress, Depression & More.
The key is to look at the how long the signs and symptoms stick around. You might see all these signs and symptoms of depression or anxiety in your teen today, and tomorrow they're all gone. But if they last longer than usual, or if your teen is no longer acting like the person you know…then it's time to act. There's no timetable in a book - you know your child better than anyone else, and you'll know when things aren't right.
How to talk to your teen about mental health
Before you talk to your teen about mental health, check in with your own emotions and thoughts. It can be very scary to think your teen is having mental health issues like anxiety, depression or thoughts of suicide. You may even think you're a bad parent - you aren't. The fact that you care about your teen's mental health, even by reading this article, proves that you're there for your teen. Again, you know your teen; if you think they are struggling with depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, you're probably right; go with your gut instinct and talk to them. Here's some advice on how to do it.
- Stay calm. Even though you might want to just rush into their bedroom and say, "Just tell me what's wrong!" at the start, take a deep breath instead. Teenage brains are still developing - even though they're feeling these emotions, they may not know how to express them; they might not have the words to tell you how they feel.
- Choose a good time. Pick a time when both of you have eaten, slept well enough - and have space in your schedules to let the conversation go on for as long as it needs to.
- Choose a good space. Minimize distractions (phone, TV, music) and look at each other if possible.
- Lead with love. Start with "I love you," Then speak to them about the signs you've seen or the changes you've noticed:
- "It looks like you're very tired every day and spending most of your time alone in your room."
- "I noticed you're not talking to your friends anymore.
- "I see you're not showering/bathing as much."
- Check your own feelings. As your teen talks, keep your own emotions in control. Remember, this is about how they are feeling and thinking. Showing anger, frustration or blaming them or others for their emotions might close them down. Remember those encouraging words and phrases like "That sounds difficult," and "This is a big deal for you, and I see that."
- Be patient. They may not be able to talk to you the first time. That's okay. If your child isn't ready to talk, repeat that you are always there, that asking for help is okay, that you love and support them. Tell them that asking for help is never a sign of weakness - for parents or kids.
- Thank them. If they tell you what's going on, listen carefully. Thank them for telling you. Whether you're a teenager or a parent, it takes a lot of strength to talk about how you feel and what you're going through.
- Look for help together. Parents want to protect their kids. It's tempting to say, "I will fix this," but instead, try saying "Let's look for help together." It's a great way to show that you care and allows them to be part of the solution. Don't worry about money; there are resources out there for everyone, regardless of community, culture or financial ability.
When it's a true crisis
You know your child better than anyone, and when it comes to suicide or self-harm, it's time to trust your gut. You may need to ask your teen the question - "Are you having thoughts of suicide?" It's a very difficult question but it shows them how much you love and care for them. If your teen is talking about suicide, suicide attempts, self-harm or they cannot manage their emotions and the day to day pressures of life, hold on to them and call a crisis line. If you find them actively trying to hurt themselves, call 9-1-1.
- This is the most important time to stay as calm as possible. Staying calm allows you to help your child and yourself. Try to not get upset, minimize the situation or pretend everything is okay. Reassure your child by saying things like, "I love you and I am here for you. We will get through this together."
- If your teen is in immediate danger - if they are trying to hurt themselves, or have tried to attempt suicide, it's time to get help. Don't wait. Call 9-1-1 for immediate injuries or overdoses.
- If your teen is safe, and needs support - call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255. You will be connected to a trained person who will know about the resources in your area. Mental health counselors, suicide prevention counselors, and other people working with mental health services are there to help you figure out a safety plan for your teen and the entire family. They will ask you about what's happening. Be open and honest. They may ask for specific details that might feel personal; it's okay. All these questions are designed to help your family get what you need. They may try to connect you to your community mental health agency who may send someone from their mobile crisis outreach team to your home to help your teen and your family stay safe. Most of the time your teen will stay at home with you; removing a teen from their home is usually seen as a last resort.
Reading all of this may feel overwhelming, but by being here, reading this and knowing the steps to help your teen with mental health, self-harm and suicidal thoughts is all part of being a good parent. Never forget; asking for help is the strongest thing anyone - a parent, a child or a teen - can do. You may consider putting these crisis lines in your phone - you may never need them, but you will have them if you do. And you may be able to help another family in need one day.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, 24/7/365, English and Spanish
- Texas Youth Helpline: 1-800-989-6884
- Crisis Text Line: text TX to 741-741
- County Services Search Page
- Suicide Prevention wallet card available in English and Spanish
Remember these quick tips:
- Mental health is just like physical health; your teen deserves both.
- Make it normal for your family to talk about your feelings.
- Keep an eye out for signs of problems with your teenager's mental and emotional health.
- Be calm when you talk to your teen about what you see.
- Listen to their answers.
- Never stop asking and checking in with your teen.
- Thank them for talking to you.
- Find help together.
- If a teen is in crisis or talks about suicide, don't wait - call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or 9-1-1 if the danger is immediate.
- Keep crisis hotline numbers, suicide hotline numbers and mental health services numbers in your phone for your own family and others.