Taking The Silence Out Of Suicide

. November 30, 2018.
Dr. Ewell Foster.
Dr. Ewell Foster.

Suicide. It’s a word that strikes fear in the hearts of every parent, so much so that many think even mentioning the subject will trigger a suicide attempt in their child.

Dr. Cynthia Ewell Foster, a clinical assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Michigan; and director of the University Center for the Child and Family, says it is common for adults to worry that asking a youth about suicide will put the idea in their head and cause harm.

“This has been empirically examined in a scientific study and found to be false,” Foster explained, citing a study from 2005 on the topic. “Noticing that someone is hurting and asking a direct question is a gesture of caring. Individuals who have struggled with suicidality and have recovered tell us that those types of direct questions and gestures of concern can be lifesaving.”

A growing, complex problem

Suicide is a growing and complex problem, Foster said, and “requires a comprehensive public health approach for prevention.” Overall rates for suicide have been increasing by about two percent a year since 2006.

According to the Washtenaw County Health Department, 32 percent of Michigan High School students in 2015 had feelings of depression and 17 percent considered suicide. Last year, in Washtenaw County, six people age 25 or younger completed suicide. As of August of this year, five people in that same age group in Washtenaw County have completed suicide.

Open lines of communication

The uneasiness people feel about discussing suicide is natural, Foster said, but keeping the lines of communication open is key. “When we set that stage, it’s a lot easier to talk about the ‘tough stuff’ as kids get older. Checking in with kids of any age when they seem down and then validating their feelings is a good place to start.”

Foster suggests that as kids get into middle and high school, parents might try: “You’ve seemed really down/stressed/worried lately. Are you doing ok? How can I help?”

Foster said parents of young people exhibiting signs of depression, substance use and other risk factors for suicide may ask more specific questions like: “Given all the stress you’re under, I’m wondering if you’ve ever had thoughts like, ‘I wish I’d never been born or I want to go to sleep and not wake up….” Foster said regardless of the answer, adults should ask the follow up question: “Have you had any thoughts about ending your life?”

Everyone in a community who interacts with children including parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, friends of a child, or even the other parents in a child’s friend group “have a role to play in keeping our youth healthy and safe,” Foster said.

Young people could be helped if they recognize that they don’t have to suffer in silence and that many resources are available to help. One of the most effective things a parent can do is remove dangerous items from the home, Foster said, including firearms, sharp objects or large quantities of medications. Foster said accessing mental health services can be complicated, but families concerned about a child should be persistent. Those with limited insurance options can reach out to their community mental health agency, pediatrician, crisis center, or emergency department.

Need Help?

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
    1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Crisis Text Line: Text Hello to 741741
  • Washtenaw County Community Mental Health 24-hour hotline: 734-544-3050
  • Michigan Medicine Psychiatric Emergency Services hotline: 734-936-5900
  • St. Joseph Mercy Hospital Psychiatric Access:
    800-289-0014 or 734-712-2762
  • Ozone House 24-hour hotline:
    734-662-2222 or Text OZONE to the same number
  • Regional Alliance for Healthy Schools 24-hour hotline:
    734-936-5900. Visit washtenawalive.org for a comprehensive listing of area resources.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness for Washtenaw County offers the Parents/Caregivers of Children with Suicidal
  • Thoughts and Behaviors support group which meets the 1st Monday of the month at WISD Teaching and Learning Center, 1819 South Wagner Rd. No registration is required. For more information visit namiwc.org.
  • Family Crisis Center of Washtenaw offers workshops and support groups such as the Parent Empowerment Cafe for parents of children who may be at risk for suicide. The group meets weekly. Visit familycrisiscenterwashtenaw.org or call
    734-660-7059 for registration.
  • Visit sprc.org for resources on suicide prevention training such as safeTALK (Suicide Alertness for Everyone), and ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills training).