About suicidal thoughts

Suicidal thoughts are thoughts about killing yourself.

Suicidal thoughts can be a sign of temporary stress and the feeling that things are just too hard and you’ve run out of options. They might last only a few seconds.

But suicidal thoughts can also be a sign of suicidal intent, like making suicide plans or a suicide attempt.

Suicidal thoughts can come suddenly, or they might follow a stressful time. Suicidal thoughts can take over a person’s thinking.

These thoughts aren’t uncommon. Around half of young people have had suicidal thoughts at some time.

Teenagers at risk of suicide attempts

Young people might be at risk of suicide attempts if they:

  • have previously attempted suicide or know someone who has suicided
  • have or have had mental illness or eating disorders or have been recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital
  • have a family history of suicide, mental illness and/or substance misuse
  • misuse alcohol and other drugs or have a history of drug abuse
  • engage in self-harming behaviour
  • have lost a parent during childhood, are going through family conflict, lack family support, are socially isolated, have experienced abuse or bullying, or are feeling rejected after a relationship breakdown
  • are exploring their sexuality or gender – for example, if they are gay, bisexual or transgender
  • have physical illness, chronic pain, disability or terminal illness.

Signs that your child might be at risk of a suicide attempt

Here are some warning signs that your child is feeling suicidal or thinking about a suicide attempt. Some of these signs are red flags and others are changes in your child’s behaviour and emotions.

Suicide red flags
Your child is:

  • talking about suicide – for example, saying things like ‘I’m going to kill myself’, ‘I wish I was dead’, ‘I wish I hadn’t been born’, ‘I feel like giving up’, ‘People would be better off if I wasn’t here’ or ‘I just want to go to sleep’
  • talking about feeling hopeless or despairing, either in person or online – for example, in blogs or social media status updates
  • talking a lot about death or dying, or drawing or writing poetry, songs or stories about death or dying
  • saying goodbye to people as if expecting not to see them again, or giving away stuff for no reason
  • writing suicide notes, or collecting things that could be used to suicide – for example, drugs or lethal weapons.

Behaviour changes
Your child might:

  • not be interested in social activities, and might spend less time with friends and more time alone
  • show a rapid drop in school performance
  • have a lot of trouble sleeping or wake up later than usual
  • run away
  • get into trouble with the police
  • use alcohol and other drugs more
  • show signs of losing touch with reality (psychosis) – for example, hearing voices or hallucinating.

Emotional changes
Your child might:

  • seem very anxious, angry, confused or agitated
  • have mood swings, rages or periods of aggression that are out of character, or be suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
  • seem not to care about other people, or have little or no reaction to happy or unpleasant events.

Some teenagers don’t show any signs and might attempt suicide without any warning. Even highly experienced mental health professionals can’t always know that a person is having suicidal thoughts. But it’s very rare for a person who is asked sensitively about symptoms to completely deny being suicidal.

If your child tells you she wants to hurt herself or wants to die, seek professional help. Lifeline services include a 24-hour phone counselling service for crisis support. Call Lifeline on 131 114 or Kids Helpline for teens on 1800 551 800 or encourage your child to call.

Asking your child about suicidal thoughts

It’s hard to do, but if you’re worried that your child is thinking about suicide, it’s best to ask him directly.

By asking direct questions about your child’s suicidal thoughts and feelings, you’re giving your child the chance to talk about them. You’re also helping your child feel less alone at a time when she might feel isolated. It might be hard for you to hear about your child’s feelings, but it’s important to listen and let your child do most of the talking. Let your child know that you understand how hard it is for her to talk about her feelings.

Here are some questions you could ask:

  • ‘Have you thought about suicide or dying?’
  • ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’
  • ‘Have you thought about how you would do it?’
  • ‘Do you know when you would do it?’

If your child says ‘yes’ to any of the questions above, you should seek immediate help by calling Lifeline on 131 114 or emergency services on 000. You can also take your child to the local hospital emergency department.

Be aware that your child might find it hard to talk about suicide. Or he might not be able to talk about his feelings or symptoms because of mental illness. If your child has depression or psychosis, he might feel that he isn’t worth helping.

Suicidal thoughts: what to do and what not to do

What to do
If your child is having suicidal thoughts, take the following steps:

  • Stay with your child or get someone else to stay with her. Don’t leave her alone.
  • Remove anything that might cause harm, like sharp objects, drugs, rope, razors, guns or medications. This also includes removing access to a car.
  • Tell your child that you care and want to help. Let him know that if you think his life is in danger, you will get help from a professional. Don’t promise to keep your child’s suicidal thoughts and feelings secret.
  • Ask your child to promise to tell you – or a trusted adult, friend, psychologist, youth worker, teacher, GP or helpline like Lifeline – if she has suicidal thoughts again.

What not to do
It’s not helpful to say things that are patronising, opinionated, blaming or judgmental. This can shut down communication and stop your child from wanting to get help.

Here are some unhelpful statements to avoid:

  • ‘But you have everything to live for.’
  • ‘Things could be worse.’
  • ‘There are people worse off than you.’
  • ‘What’s making you feel bad?’
  • ‘What can I do to make you feel better?’

Getting help for a child with suicidal thoughts

You need to get professional help for your child. The support you give your child isn’t a substitute for help from qualified mental health professionals.

You can start by arranging a mental health assessment for your child with a GP, counsellor or mental health professional. If your child has a mental health issue, treatment will give your child the best chance of recovery.

You can support your child through this by making phone calls, looking into treatment options, offering to arrange your child’s mental health appointments and going to appointments with him.

People who are suicidal can feel as if there’s no hope and that they’ve run out of options. It will help to reassure your child that things will change and get better with the right treatment.

Suicidal thoughts: protective factors

Just as there are risk factors for suicide, there are also factors that can help protect young people against suicide. These include:

  • feeling that they have strong social supports and relationships with friends and peers
  • feeling connected to family
  • having good coping and problem-solving skills
  • having positive values and beliefs
  • being able to seek and get help.

Looking after yourself

Discovering that your child has suicidal thoughts or has made a suicide attempt is very distressing. You’ll probably want to do everything you can to support your child. It’s also important to look after yourself so that you’re in the best shape to look after your child.

Here are a few ways that you can look after your own health and wellbeing:

  • Seek professional help for yourself if you’re distressed, or even if you just want to talk about the effect of your child’s experience on you. Your GP, a counsellor or Lifeline are good places to start.
  • It will be hard to leave your child on her own. Ask for help from family, friends or members of your support network. You can ask them to give you a call or to look after your other children.
  • If possible, try to do something enjoyable each week, either by yourself or with friends and family.