09/07/2016 07:45 EDT | Updated 09/12/2016 11:15 EDT

It's Not Only OK To Talk About Suicide With Teens, It's Important

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Father talking to teenage son (15-16)

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There's a critical seven-letter word often concealed in speech by a whisper. People are afraid to say it.

It's hard to talk about, but there's a lot of curiosity swirling around the topic. It happens every 40 seconds worldwide.

What's this mystery word that elicits such fear?

Tilt your screen so no one can see.

We are talking about suicide. Sounds terrifyingly dark. Despairing. That's because everything about it is awful and heart-wrenching.

Consider suicide in the context of your role as a parent. Daunting, right? Somersaults in your guts.

Suicide starts with a thought. A desire to die. No parent knows how to cope with their child's struggle with suicidal thoughts, ever.

Suicide contradicts the notion of being a parent: to give and promote life. Not a single parent feels equipped to handle their kid's wish to no longer exist.

Why give thought to this bleak topic?

As a parent, you are well-positioned to notice the warning signs of suicide and intervene.

Here's why. You would want to know if your child was at risk for suicide, and ways to mitigate their risk.

It starts with prevention by being attuned to your child's emotional needs.

As a parent, you are well-positioned to notice the warning signs of suicide and intervene.

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While still a taboo topic, you can broach the subject of suicide with your child. Having a responsible conversation with your teen about suicide won't plant any seeds that weren't already there. It's OK to talk about suicide.

Even if your child poses no risk, the talk, albeit unsettling, could make your kid more inclined to help out a friend who could be contemplating suicide or struggling with other mental health concerns.

They key is to be sensitive and genuine. Make the time for this difficult chat. Tell your child how much you value their life and love them.

Suicide: a teen topic

Suicide is more prevalent than you might think, especially among adolescents.

Teen suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24 in the United States and the second leading cause of death in Canada among ages 10 to 24. Unfortunately, it's on the mind of a lot of adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 17 per cent of teenagers in the U.S. seriously consider death by suicide in a year.

Teen suicides have shaken poor and affluent communities alike.

Epidemic proportions of adolescent suicide have been reported in remote regions like the First Nations across Ontario, with a rate 50 times the national average. Similar trends of teen suicide have haunted Palo Alto, a prosperous community of the Silicon Valley.

So, what causes a teen to want to end their life?

Unfortunately, there's no simple answer. No one factor can be pinpointed as the cause of suicide.

As you may have guessed, mental health is front and centre on this discussion.

What shapes your child's world? Is your teen on shaky ground?

It all boils down to risk factors. In other words, reasons that things might not be going so well for a person. Feelings of isolation. Anxious emotions. Troubles at school. Dark thoughts cloud judgement. Anger. Feeling trapped and a loss of interest in activities that were once loved. A cry for help can even manifest itself on social media.

The scary thing is some of these risk factors mimic normal teen problems like mood changes, tumultuous relationships and engagement in risky behaviors like drug or alcohol use.

Protective factors prevent suicide

Does your teen employ positive coping skills when obstacles arise, or would they turn to a negative coping mechanism? Do they look to escape problems or confront them head on? Are they resilient in the face of adversity?

In your household, do you make it OK to express emotional vulnerability?

Is there a trusted adult your kid can turn to? Would you allow your child speak to a counselor or mental health professional? Perhaps there is someone at your teen's school who can provide emotional support.

Fostering open communication starts in the home, but it's OK for your teen to seek help in other safe arenas.

Now let's talk about means. We all know that teenagers are impulsive. Males are likely to use weapons as a means to end their life, whereas it is common for girls to poison themselves.

Does your teen have access to a firearm? Do you know what kind of noxious combinations are inside the medicine cabinet?

Then there's the risk factor of propinquity -- social proximity to a suicide.

There are contagion effects of suicide. If a suicide occurs in your family, within the community or draws robust media attention, don't brush it under the rug. Foster an open conversation about the suicide where fear, curiousity and grief can be addressed.

Uncovering anxiety and depression as triggers for suicidal thinking

And then back to emotional well-being. How's your teen's mental health?

About 90 per cent of individuals who die by suicide are dealing with a mental health disorder.

Depression and anxiety have been closely tied to suicidal ideation and suicide.

And guess when symptoms of mental health illnesses begin to emerge? The tender age of early adolescence.

Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental health illness in Canada and the U.S. The World Health Organization reports that 25 per cent of families have at least one member with a mental disorder.

While anxiety and depression are manageable conditions with proper treatment like talk therapy and medication, there is still much stigma around seeking mental health treatment.

Parent attitude toward mental health goes a long way.

If your child had a cavity, would you let it go unfilled? Skipping antibiotics for a strep infection would be unacceptable. You wouldn't let your teen learn how to drive without them buckling up first. An open wound wouldn't go untreated.

Mental health is just as important as your child's physical health.

When it comes to your child's mental health, exercise that same prudence when you found out you were welcoming new life into this world.

Preserving a child's life is a priority.

Death, for all of us, is inevitable, but death by suicide can be preventable.

If you or someone you know is at risk please contact your nearest Crisis Centre or call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a counsellor.

Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email


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