Why I Talk to My Kids About Suicide — And You Should Too

leading cause of death

Black ink swirled on my arm as the tattoo gun engraved “Warr;or” into my skin. I’m weird like that. I get tattoos to commemorate moments. Ink is my thing because it marks me for life. Later, I posted a photo of my daughter and I soaking in the sun with my new tattoo on display. What I didn’t expect was the dozens of private messages from friends about the tattoo. Their comments weren’t about the word I word tattooed but more about the meaning of the semicolon within it.

As a writer I am in love with the meaning of the semicolon. A semicolon is what a writer uses to connect two different thoughts or ideas. It means the writer could’ve ended the moment with a period but didn’t. It means to continue. It’s well known among the mental health community too.  In 2013, Amy Bleuel started the faith-based nonprofit movement that is dedicated to “presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury,” according to its website. Bleuel lost her father to suicide.

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My family nearly lost me to suicide in 2004. Had it not been for the emergency staff the night that worked tirelessly to save me, I would not be here.  It’s been more than a decade since that day and the darkness of depression still sometimes overshadows my life.

I am blessed and lucky. I conquered the black hole of a suicide attempt thanks to the support of friends, family and a counselor. I fought to get healthy, but I kept silent because of the stigma. I kept it hidden, because of the ignorance, criticism and rejection from those who didn’t understand or because their sudden loss was too fresh to bear. When I talk about it, people act as if I have a case of the chickenpox or that a straight jacket with leggings should be a staple in my wardrobe.

For me, the black ink is a reminder of the dusty roads my feet traveled down. It’s a reminder that I was able to get through those starless nights; that I hung on long enough to see the sunrise. It’s a reminder to ensure I am doing self-care. It’s a reminder to make sure I take my medication every evening. It’s a reminder to talk to my kids.

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Our community is still reeling from three student suicides during the 2016-2017 school year. I’ll never forget the moment when I was at work at the newspaper when the chatter on the radios was about another student who had committed suicide. I fell to the floor when I learned it was one of my daughter’s friends. Hands shaking, I couldn’t get her on the phone fast enough.

“Mom did you know? Did you know Jacob* died in his truck last night? We can’t find Steven. We’re scared he’s gonna do something.” That moment solidified the ripple effect my attempt would’ve cause our family and community. I was beyond heartbroken for my daughter, our community and his family.

That moment broke my silence when I first began to speak out about mental health and suicide.

In 2016, the most recent data available, Nebraska had 251 suicides; according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. That’s 251 too many. Our rate should be zero. It is the first leading cause of death for ages 10 to 14. Nationally, it was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages.  

Today I’m talking about it because parents believe their children are immune. I was chatting with a mom friend of mine when she commented, “My kids can tell me anything. I believe they’re confident enough to come to me and deal with it.”

This is the wrong perspective. This is the ideal that puts your child at risk and in danger. Never believe your child is immune. Never believe it’s not relevant. It’s all too relevant. Suicide can happen to any family at any time. It is currently the second leading cause of death nationwide for youth 10 to 24.

So what does this mean? It means teaching my children about the beauty of semicolons which I point out often when I review their homework or see one on a sign or billboard or in a book. We talk about self-care and the power of speaking out to save a life.

It means OPEN and honest discussions with my kids about my past, about depression, and about suicide. It goes against the myth that if you talk about it, you’ll plant the idea in your kids head.  It means helping my children create safety plans. “Do you have an adult besides my you can trust if you need help or need to talk to someone? Do you feel comfortable with the counselors at your school? How else can I help?”

Today, I’m talking about it because our family is reeling from the unexpected losses. I’m talking about it because I get it. I got up from it, and I pray you or someone you know is willing to talk about it. Please know there is hope. Every day, I rise up, wash my face and put on my makeup with the message of “Warr;or” reflecting in the mirror. 

For tips to talk to your child about depression, mental health and suicide. Download this great resource from the society for the prevention of teen suicide. 

*name changed to protect the family. Edited from its first appearance at Momaha.com


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Heather Riggleman
Heather Riggleman calls Nebraska home (Hey, it’s not for everyone). She roams small towns looking for stories and coffee with her husband and three kids. She writes to bring the perspective of bold truths and raw faith into universal concepts women face from marriage, career, mental health, depression, faith, relationships, to celebration and heartache. Heather is a former national award-winning journalist and the author of Mama Needs a Time Out and Let’s Talk About Prayer. Her work has been featured on Proverbs 31 Ministries, MOPS, Today's Christian Woman and Focus On the Family. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram Instagram, or at heatherriggleman.com.