Suicide is rarely an instant decision.
Suicide is rarely and instant decision. Instead, it’s the culmination of a myriad of thoughts that often build for years.
Below is an outline of the process that goes from passing thoughts all the way to suicide.
Step 1: Passing Thoughts
We know that up to 25% of fourth grade students have passing thoughts about suicide. When children lose a sense of power or agency in their world, they try to regain it by means they know already. But if nothing works, it isn’t all that uncommon for the thought to cross their minds: “If this happens again, I could just kill myself and boy would my parent / teacher / friend feel bad then!”
At this point, most kids are pretty compliant, so at the same time they might have this thought, they are also likely do what has been asked of them. Their passing thought just allows them to feel that if things got really bad, they could resort to suicide. They’d be the ones in control. And that works — for a while. Sometimes for a couple of weeks, sometimes for months. But eventually as they grow older, problems become more complex and rather like an addiction, they need to “increase the dose” in order to feel the same sense of relief.
Step 2: The Beginnings of Ideation
So maybe in sixth grade, something happens and this time – perhaps very unexpectedly – when they make that same statement, “…. I could just kill myself and boy would my parent / teacher / friend feel bad…” right behind it comes the thought, “… and if I did it, I’d use my dad’s gun.” Now that really felt empowering! So now the response to overwhelming stress is to not only remind themselves, “I could kill myself,“ but to also remind themselves that there is a method… a way.
Step 3: Rehearsal
That works for quite some time. But then one day, maybe a couple of years later, instead of slamming the door in frustration, they lie down on the bed and say to themselves, “I really could kill myself and if I did it I really would use my dad’s gun and tonight when they’re gone I’m going to go make sure I know where it is.” And they do… and this is the beginning of rehearsal. They’ve moved from ideation to rehearsal, which is a very dangerous transition. Now when they feel overwhelmed, they take the gun out to make sure that the ammunition is accessible and that the means is at the ready.
Step 4: Practice
Sometime later, when once again they’ve hit that brick wall and perhaps depression has set in, they take the weapon into their bedroom and keep it there for the night. At this stage, kids might put the gun in their mouth or point it at their temple and just imagine pulling the trigger. And kids may practice that many, many times. So when you consider how this journey has progressed over so many years, the subsequent steps are orderly and predictable.
Step 5: Attempted Suicide
The last step … pulling the trigger … is actually one small step in a journey of hundreds of smaller steps leading to this moment.
Prevention Must Start Early
When we look at the journey, it is easy to see that prevention must start when children are in the very earliest stages. It is much easier to give a child new concepts and language when they’re first having passing thoughts — when they’re momentarily overwhelmed — than when that thought has become the coping skill they most routinely use. Prevention must be a part of every environment in a child’s life. At school and at home. At church and at clubs.
Suicide Prevention Guide
Check out our Suicide Prevention: Guidelines for Parents, Teachers, Community Members and Youth booklet, created in partnership with Crisis Management Institute. (Click the button, then select “books” to see the guide.)
How to Talk to Children About Suicide
The moment children use language of killing themselves is the moment to step in even if you think their language is just to get attention. This video explains some ways to talk to children about suicide.
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