Talk to your kids about suicide before they think they’re alone.
The heartbreaking suicide of former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst this weekend should be a wake up call for all of us to talk with our loved ones about
suicide. Kryst was a lawyer with an MBA, a TV correspondent, and a beloved pageant queen whose platform was mental health, yet she spent her last day in the grip of a hopelessness that is the lie of mental illness, thinking she could never feel better.
As a member of several grieving-parent support groups, I hear about every kind of child death: by car accident, cancer, falls, electrocution, drowning, sudden illness, or by other unexpected tragedies, such as by overdose, as with my own son, and, most tragically, by suicide. While deaths are falling in many of these categories, youth overdose and suicide are on the rise, with ever-younger children taking their own lives — a problem that has worsened since the start of the pandemic and is increasing most dramatically among Black children.
In mid-2020, a newly bereaved mother shared in one of my online groups that her 11-year-old son, whom I’ll call Ryan, a beautiful boy whose smiling photo she posted, had killed himself without warning. His mother says he was a healthy, happy child who never showed any signs of depression but became overwhelmed by not being allowed to go to school or see his friends.
While suicide rates among adults have been climbing since 1999, they actually declined slightly since the pandemic began. However, youth suicide is a growing epidemic. It had already been skyrocketing over the previous decade, as had overdoses, and has increased further since 2020.
In December of 2021, USA Today reported, “Child suicides grew by 15% a year between 2012 and 2017 … [and] the number of suicide and self-injury cases in the first three quarters of 2021 was 47% higher among 5- to 8-year-olds and 182% higher among 9- to 12-year-olds than for the same period [five years earlier].” Since the start of the pandemic, suicide became the number one cause of death for children ages 13 to 15.
Sadly, for children Ryan’s age, suicide is often done on impulse, without the child showing any prior signs of depression. While females think of suicide more often, males are four times more likely to kill themselves than females, putting boys, who are societally discouraged from talking about their feelings, at particular risk. And while older teens often suffer diagnosed mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, and exhibit warning signs before attempting suicide, younger children often commit suicide with no forethought and little warning. This is why talking to them about suicide now, before you think you have anything to worry about, is so important.
When I was 15, I attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of my grandmother’s Valium. I remember my bone-deep, exhausted-with-life feeling as I stood in the bathroom swallowing all those little yellow pills. Unbeknownst to me, I was also about to get my period, a regular event that caused debilitating depression to descend on me for three days every month for the next 35 years (until I mercifully went into sudden menopause upon the death of my son). Fortunately, I survived and spent that summer in a psychiatric hospital with a spacious, bright adolescent wing and all kinds of therapies. My doctor there was an idiot who told me PMS was a myth — but most of the other kids were just normal adolescents struggling to figure out a way forward, and the aides and nurses were wise sages who talked to us about how we would be able to make our own lives one day soon if we just hung in there.
My suicide attempt was a shock to everyone who knew me. I’d always seemed like such a happy kid, able to roll and adapt to anything — until I just wasn’t anymore. I continued to struggle with depression throughout my adult life, but once I had children, the option of committing suicide was simply off the table for me. My father had killed himself when I was an infant, something I hadn’t discovered until I was 12 (and learning he had done that likely contributed to my choosing to follow in his footsteps when I was 15, as copycatting is a real phenomenon with suicide. Both my father’s younger brothers followed his example and died by suicide, as well). I knew that no matter how I suffered, I would never leave my own children with that legacy. So even in the worst throes of misery, I have just had to tell myself I am stuck here with no choice but to grind on. I am seasoned enough by now to know that my misery is temporary and that if it feels hopeless, I am particularly unwell and in need of extra help.
Since I know I will never do anything to make my occasional death wish come true, I have learned to force myself to work hard at self-care, which includes therapy, medications, daily yoga, exercise, support groups, spending time in nature, making time for art and pleasure, meditating, listening to and articulating my own needs, etc., because if I am stuck here, I may as well feel and spread as much joy as possible. I am very grateful for the medications–and the lack of premenstrual hormones–that keep me on a more even keel now. And most days, mercifully, do not feel like a slog, they feel like the gift they are.
How terrible that young Ryan didn’t get to live long enough to have perspective, get help or make any of these realizations. How awful that suicide rates have risen 30 percent over the past two decades, while overdose rates rose that much just last year. This massive increase in young people dying “deaths of despair” by their own hand, whether by suicide, alcohol, or “accidental” overdose, as in the case of my son, are the canaries in the coal mine of our society telling us something is deeply wrong with how we are living. We must start talking about this with our children and with each other.
I hope reading this gives all of you permission to have an open conversation about suicide with your loved ones, especially your children. Let them know that imagining their own deaths is normal. It’s better for them to know everyone has dark thoughts than to think their own feelings are proof there is something terribly wrong with them. My therapists have assured me that nearly all of us do imagine our own deaths, sometimes longingly. But fantasies like these are not the same as making plans to take our lives; planning one’s own death is not normal–and is, in fact, a clear sign that an illness has taken over our thinking and that we need help outside ourselves. If the voice in your head is advising you to take your own life, please recognize that voice is not your friend and must be reported. Make sure your children know this, too.
Let all your loved ones know that hopelessness is a lie their illness is telling them. No matter how terrible they feel today, there are many things that can help them feel better, and I hope you tell them explicitly that you will help them try all those things one by one until they figure out what works to restore their will to live.
My son ruined the chemistry of his brain with drugs that made him think he could never feel better, but that was a lie his sickness was telling him. He might have needed a bridge to wellness with recovery medication, but eventually he could have learned to find happiness in the thousand small moments we now enjoy without him, wistfully imagining how he might have laughed with us if he were still here.
I pray none of you ever endure a tragedy like me or the mothers of 11-year-old Ryan or 30-year-old Cheslie — nor ever leave your own families to endure your self-inflicted loss. Now is the time to break the stigma around suicide and talk to the people you love before it’s too late, because truly, we never know what secret, shameful thoughts people who seem fine might be having. Show the people you love that suicide is something loving families can talk about and that suicidal feelings are something all of us can survive.