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09/09/2014 12:19 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Let Your Kids Know They Can Talk to You About Suicide

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What would you do if your kid told you that one of his friends is suicidal?

Suicide is a complex subject, and it can be difficult to talk about with a young person. But it's important to let kids know they can come to you, no matter what. Suicide can affect anyone, and in Canada, it is among the leading causes of death in young people ages 15-24.

The warning signs are not always easy to see, but there can be indications that someone needs help. At Kids Help Phone, counsellors often hear from young people who are worried that a friend is thinking of suicide.

Youth are often unsure of how to talk to their parents about suicide. Sometimes this is because they don't want to worry or burden their parents, or make them uncomfortable. Even though suicide is a topic that is discussed in the media, such as when a celebrity like Robin Williams died by suicide, and is explored on popular shows like Degrassi, there continues to be a lot of stigma associated with it. As a result, some young people remain reluctant to reach out and talk if they are struggling.

Many kids confide in each other before turning to anyone else, but kids can't be expected to know what to do if a friend is suicidal.

That's why it's important for kids to know they are supported by people around them, like parents, as well as teachers, guidance counsellors, and other adults they can trust.

Take today as an opportunity to talk

World Suicide Prevention Day takes place every year on September 10, and it can be one way to start a conversation about suicide. For example, you could ask, "does your school do anything to recognize the day?" Try to lead the conversation a little deeper if you can by asking, "if someone in your class were to die by suicide, how could we talk about it as a family?"

Let your kid know that suicide affects people of all ages, from all walks of life, and it can affect entire communities -- everyone from classmates to neighbours, friends to teachers can have many different feelings and questions when someone dies by suicide. Acknowledge that it can be an intense, difficult subject to talk about, but make sure your kid knows the lines of communication are always open -- even for the tough stuff.

Listen, and take it seriously

If your kid tells you that a friend is talking about suicide, it's important to listen and take it seriously. It can be overwhelming for a young person to know that someone they care about is thinking of ending their life.

Don't try to minimize or question the situation by saying things like, "your friend doesn't have any reason to want to do that," or, "it's probably just a phase."

Instead, validate that this is a serious concern. Help your kid understand that they aren't expected to know how to handle the situation. Let them know that they did the right thing by talking to you about it, and that if necessary, you are willing to assist their friend to get help.

Parents don't have to have all the answers, either

Don't feel like you have to have all of the answers; if you aren't sure how to talk about suicide with your kid, educate yourself about mental health and wellness through trusted, reliable resources.

This can be something that you and your kid can do together. Saying something like, "I'm not sure what the answer to that question is, so why don't we find the answer together?" can be another way for you to talk through the situation.

Knowledge helps us challenge stigma, judgments, assumption, and misinformation.

Encourage self-care

It's important for young people to take care of themselves, especially if they are feeling overwhelmed.

Encourage your kid to take some time for themselves. A long walk, a quiet bath, or time spent writing in a journal can all be helpful to a young person who is coping with a difficult situation.

A young person who has a friend who is talking about suicide may need additional support. Explore options with them: is there a school guidance counsellor, a coach, or other trusted adult they could reach out to? They may also benefit, or require, professional counselling.

Parents need to practice self-care, too, so don't forget to take care of yourself. It's not easy having talks like this with your kids, but it is important not to let fear or discomfort stop you. In Canada, the youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world. Even though countries everywhere are recognizing suicide on World Suicide Prevention Day, we can all play a role in keeping the conversation going throughout the year.

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