Adolescence is a complex stage of life encompassing many changes and growth, both physically and psychologically. This is a time when young people begin to develop a sense of personal identity which involves questioning who they are, their values and their goals for the future.
The experience of losing a family member or friend to suicide can be particularly difficult during adolescent years. It is important to be aware of any cues that they are not coping, or signs of risky behaviour. While a young person may be yearning for independence, after a suicide they may also experience a conflicting need for support from those close to them.
These experiences of confusion and isolation can manifest in a number of behaviours such as:
Anger is a normal reaction to grief, and an expression of feelings or abandonment or blame. Be willing to listen and let the adolescent know that these are normal feelings.
An adolescent may also engage in risk-taking behaviour such as:
If you notice any of these behaviours it is important to seek support for both yourself and the adolescent.
Take all cues and threats of self-harm or suicide seriously and ask the adolescent directly about whether they are considering suicide. It is a myth that talking about suicide will put the idea in their heads, and most adolescents experience a sense of relief in being able to talk about these difficult feelings.
For further information about what questions to ask someone you think may be suicidal, see our tip sheet How should I talk to them about it? or contact a telephone counselling service such as Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Lifeline 13 11 14, or Parent Line 1300 30 1300.
It is important to open up the lines of communication so that the adolescent can talk about how they are feeling about the suicide. Here are some tips to help you talk to an adolescent about a death by suicide:
It is important that the young person finds someone who they trust and can talk to, whether it is a family friend, sporting coach, GP or teacher.
It may be helpful to provide the adolescent with youth-specific resources or contact numbers such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or headspace. You may want to discuss arranging some counselling face-to-face with either the school counsellor, a community-based service or local headspace service.
The viewing and funeral service provides an opportunity for the young person to say goodbye and express their grief. It is important for the adolescent to feel like they are involved at a level with which they feel comfortable. This could mean inviting the adolescent to contribute to the ceremony by choosing a favourite song to be played at the service or a reading/poem for the eulogy. It may mean simply being present at the funeral.
It may be helpful to remind the young person of the following as they move through the grief process:
It is important to connect with the school so that teachers can be prepared and provide a supportive environment for the adolescent. Here are some suggestions about how to engage the school:
All government schools are required to have an emergency management plan in place to implement if there has been a suicide by a student or staff member of the school. For further information please refer to the Department of Education in your state.
The School of Psychiatry of the University of New South Wales, with the support of the Anika Foundation for Research in Adolescent Depression and Suicide, is starting a new study on adolescents who have experienced the death of a relative or a friend and are looking for people to take part.
The death of a friend or a family member might have a profound, debilitating and potentially long lasting impact on adolescents. However, there is a lack of research specifically focussed on bereaved adolescents. The study will help us to better understand grief in adolescents, and will inform us on how to better help bereaved adolescents. We expect that the study will produce a set of recommendations on how to meet the needs of bereaved adolescents. Please find further information and whether this research project would be a good fit for you, here.