Teenagers say all kinds of things that make parents scratch their heads. Sometimes their words are typical hormone-driven melodrama. “I hate you!” or “You never understand me!” or “I can’t wait til I’m 18 so I can move out!” are often followed by stomping feet and a slamming door. Most parents know when their kids are simply blowing off steam or struggling with overwhelming emotions, and they know the best plan is to wait for things to simmer down, then address the situation in a calm and rational manner.
But when your teenager says, “I wanna just die” or “I wanna kill myself” the stakes change. You must take these words seriously. Mental health professional call these types of thoughts Suicidal Ideation (SI). Where suicidal ideation is concerned, always err on the side of caution, and always respond. Not all teens who say things like this truly intend to harm themselves, but one thing is certain: if you’re not a qualified professional trained in the evaluation of SI, then you need to seek the help of someone who is.
Consider these facts:
- The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Suicide indicates suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24.
- 50% of people who develop mental disorders experience their first symptoms by the age of 14.
- If adolescents with mental health problems get the care they need when they need it, intervention can save their lives.
What Should You Do?
Control Your Emotions
In the heat of the moment, it’s best to avoid extreme emotional responses. Pause, focus, take a breath, and don’t react while you’re freaking out inside. At the same time, don’t leave your teen alone, don’t try to reason, don’t engage in debate, and above all, don’t wait to reach out to a professional. Stay close to your teen, express your love and support, and tell them you’ll be with them until you get help. It’s far better to be safe than sorry.
Take Immediate Action
Call 911 or take your teen straight to the nearest hospital emergency room. You’re not betraying trust by trying to keep him alive. At the hospital (or sometimes over the phone if you call 911), a qualified and skilled mental health professional will evaluate your teen and help you decide on next steps.
Here’s what will happen when you seek help:
- Mental health professionals with experience in suicide and/or self-harm behaviors will assess your teen.
- If the mental health professional determines that there is no real intent behind the SI, they’re release your teen, and you can return home.
- If the mental health professional determines real intent, your teen will be placed on a temporary psychiatric hold at a hospital in the behavioral unit. In California, this is called a 5585/5150 Involuntary Detention Hold.
- The typical length of stay is a minimum of 72 hours. If an in-depth assessment indicates treatment is needed, your teen may remain for an additional 1-2 weeks.
- During the stabilization period, your teen will be assessed for medical, psychiatric, transition, and support needs.
- Following this period your teen will receive a treatment plan and recommendations for follow-up.
Whatever happens—short-term monitoring, extended monitoring, or immediate release—your responsibility as a parent is to see the situation as an opportunity for growth.
Start The Conversation
After you handle the immediate crisis—or non-crisis, depending—it’s time to take proactive steps to address the issues. Here’s a starter-list of what to do next:
Express Love and Support. Your teen needs to know you are there for them, love them, and support them, regardless of the issues they have or the problems they face.
Set Boundaries. Remind your teen that words are powerful. A call to 911 is serious – so if your teen was not in imminent danger, follow-up by encouraging them to use less inflammatory language to communicate feelings of frustration or anger.
Open a dialogue. Explore the emotions behind the words. You may need help with this part. Engage your teen in both individual and family therapy. Your teen will benefit from seeing that you are listening, invested, and that you want to keep them safe.
Create a safety plan. Work with your teen to create a plan that answers the following questions:
- What do I do if/when I have thoughts of suicide or self-harm?
- Who do I call?
- What do I say?
- Where do I go?
Evolve Can Help
The goal of dialogue and contingency planning is to set guidelines for positive communication to ensure your teen feels safe enough to reach out for help when they need it. Many parents fear the backlash, stigmatization, and feelings of failure that arise when their teen needs help with serious mental health issues. These fears are very real, but pale in comparison to the consequences of not seeking help.
Taking steps to help a child struggling with serious mental health issues is not easy. In the case of Suicidal Ideation, there’s a simple answer: whether there’s true underlying intent to do harm or not, it’s always a cry for help, and a cry for help must always be taken seriously.
If you think your teen needs professional help, don’t wait.
Give us a call.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.