Not too long ago, an 11-year-old girl in Connecticut Children’s Emergency Department was asked questions by her doctor, including one that seemed unrelated to why she was there: In the past few weeks, had she thought about killing herself?

To her mother’s shock, the child said yes. She admitted that she had been thinking about suicide for a long time but didn’t know who to talk to.

It’s a reminder for all of us: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34. But it is 100% preventable. 

Steven Rogers, MD, Connecticut Children’s medical director of Emergency Behavioral Health services, shares what parents can do to help.

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1. Show your child that it’s okay to talk about suicide.

If your child is struggling or having suicidal thoughts, it’s important that they don’t keep it a secret. Suicide can be a scary and uncomfortable topic, so your child needs to know that it’s okay to talk about it with you.

Start the conversation for them. Let them know that if they or any of their friends ever have thoughts of suicide, they can talk to you or any trusted adult. If something has happened in the news or at their school, use it as a chance to check in.

Talking about suicide does not cause it or contribute to the risk. Instead, it is likely to be protective and relieving for a child to know that it’s okay to talk about their thoughts and feelings and how to seek help.

> Related: The Best Way to Prevent Youth Suicide? Talk About It

2. Ask your child direct questions about suicide.

Maybe you’re already in the habit of checking on your child’s mental health, like “How are feeling today?” or “You seem sad – what’s going on?” That’s great. Keep it up!

But if your child seems anxious or depressed – and even if not – you should still ask them directly about suicide. Otherwise, they may feel too scared or ashamed to bring it up on their own.

Try questions like these:

  • Have you ever wished that you were dead?
  • Have you ever thought that you would be better off if you were dead?
  • Have you ever thought about killing yourself?
  • Have you ever tried to kill yourself?
  • NOTE: If your child answers yes to any of these questions, you should call 211 for support and advice, or dial 911 if they are in immediate danger.

3. Listen carefully, and calmly.

Keep in mind that kids might interpret an emotionally-charged reaction from you – even if it’s just concern – as anger, or that they’ve done something wrong.

So it’s important to listen and stay as calm as possible. That will help your child feel safe opening up and sharing exactly what’s going on.

> Related: Resources to Support Your Child’s Mental Health

4. Get professional support for your child.

In a crisis, use these suicide prevention resources.

  • Call 911 if you feel your child is unsafe, actively suicidal, or a danger to themselves or others.
  • Call 211 (Connecticut only) for 24 hour support/advice if your child is in crisis or you are unsure if they need immediate evaluation. This includes mobile crisis intervention services, if needed.
  • Contact the National Suicide Prevention Life Line: Call 1.800.273.8255 or text “HOME” to 741741.

If your child is not in immediate danger, start with these resources.

> Related: Free, Confidential Support for Families Experiencing Domestic Violence

Connecticut Children’s is dedicated to preventing youth suicide.

Every child who is 10 years and older who comes to our Emergency Department is asked (with a caregiver’s permission) screening questions to see if they’re at risk for suicide, and we help them find the resources they need.

Connecticut Children’s Suicide Screening Program