Family & Education

Talking life and death with your children

Schools have been sending parents warnings about potential suicide triggers. The JC's agony aunt Hilary Freeman has some advice on what to do next.


It must be every parent’s worst fear, something that none of us wants to contemplate. But, this week, parents have been talking to their children about suicide, prompted by letters sent from many schools warning that an online “game”, the Blue Whale Challenge, and the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why might trigger extreme reactions.

“I was scared when I got the letter,” says Nikki, mother of two teenage daughters. “I didn’t know how to broach the subject. It worried me that their schools thought this was serious enough to warn me about it.”

Suicide is the leading cause of death in under 35s, and is a growing problem among teenagers, particularly boys, who are three times as likely to kill themselves as girls. Talking about it isn’t easy though. Especially in the context of a programme like 13 Reasons Why, which has been accused of portraying suicide in a way that could be dangerous. Adapted from Jay Asher’s bestselling novel, it is about the suicide of a teenage girl, Hannah. The death is shown in graphic detail on the show — something which is usually avoided — and the story centres on tapes sent by Hannah to people she accuses of driving her to suicide. Another criticism is that this “revenge” factor suggests wrongly that suicide can be a reasonable, even inevitable reaction to difficult situations.

Ged Flynn, chief executive of Papyrus, a charity dedicated to preventing young suicides, warns that the series could romanticise and sensationalise suicide. He suggests parents might want to watch the programme with their children and is concerned that vulnerable young people could watch it alone at night, saying it could lead to “potential suicide contagion.”

He says: “Talk about suicide: don’t hide it, talk openly and honestly if you are worried, but don’t talk about method.”

Charities are wary of speaking about the Blue Whale Challenge, saying it is not a problem in the UK, even though the warnings have come from the police, after several deaths in Russia.

Philippa Carr, Recovery Education Manager of Jewish mental health charity, JAMI, says young Jewish people can be particularly at risk of developing mental health problems because we are such a high-achieving, aspirational community. “Today’s young people are under more scrutiny than ever before, with not only more educational testing, but also from social media which puts pressure on them to present a likeable, glamorous image to the world.”

So, how do you talk to your children about suicide? Flynn says it’s important to be direct. “Talking about suicide does not make it more likely to happen. But, if they have had suicidal thoughts, you have given them a safe space to talk, have shown them you are there for them and that it is OK for them to share their thoughts. You can reassure them that there are services and people to support them.

“It may be that writing things down is an easier way for them to communicate with you. Always treat them with respect, and try not to be judgmental or critical. It is important to try to raise their self-esteem… and to show that you really do care about them, no matter what, and are trying to understand things from their point of view. If they won’t talk to you, maybe they would talk to a friend or sibling.”

What if your child is the one to whom a friend confides suicidal thoughts? “This has happened to both of my children,” says Emma, mother of two older teens. “I told them that they must let the school know, that this was too big a secret to keep. It’s great that they are the sort of people that friends turn to, but I wouldn’t want them to feel guilty if anything happened.”

Flynn agrees with this approach. “It’s vital that they know they will not be letting their friend, brother or sister down if they tell someone they are worried about them, and that they will not get into trouble.”

When young people are depressed or suicidal, they often feel that they’re the only one who feels like that. Reassuring your child that desperate feelings are very common and can be overcome is important.

If your child is under pressure at school, work with teachers to make things easier. Be clear that there are always options.

Try not to be critical, to put your child down, or to make them feel abandoned or rejected in any way. And if they have had such problems, remember life won’t suddenly get back to normal, so they may be at risk for quite a long time. But you need to balance being watchful with a respect for privacy.

Stress-busting activities such as sports or music are useful, says Carr. And create opportunities for informal chats, in the car or on walks.

Cyber-bullying and pressure from social media is a subject tackled by 13 Reasons Why, and could be a reason to watch it with your child. And the aftermath of a suicide can also provoke dialogue. “When my son was 15 a boy he knew killed himself,” said Lucy, a mother from north London. “It was a terrible tragedy and difficult to talk about because we didn’t know the details.

“My son became obsessed with the Facebook tribute page. ‘He was so popular’, he’d say. ‘I can’t understand why he’d do that.’ We talked about the difference between social media and reality, and about how the boy couldn’t see the loving messages people were writing to him. We discussed how devastated his family must be, and how much parents love their children despite everyday arguments. Those were valuable conversations, I’m just very sad about the cause.”


If you need someone to talk to, you can call the Samaritans at any time from any phone on 116 123

If you're concerned about your mental health of someone else's, you can call JAMI 0208458 2223

To talk about youth suicide you can call the Papyrus Hopeline 0800 06841, text 07786209697 or email pat@papyrus-uk-org 

Jewish Helpline is   run by volunteers  and offers a service similar to the Samaritans. They  take calls from  midday to midnight Monday – Thursday, and 12-3 on Fridays.They're on  0800 652 9249 (Freephone) / 020 3096 2875 (landline). 


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