Overcoming the fear of a parent’s suicide

When we saw that the subject of this year’s World Mental Health Day was suicide, we knew it would be challenging to speak about it from our experience as a charity as it can often be considered a ‘dark’ topic to broach.

However, in our work with families where there is a parent with a mental illness we often discuss death and suicide in the work that we do with the children.

In our KidsTime Workshops, the children and young people find ways to think about, and talk about, taboo subjects such as death and illness through drama. They find a way of talking about their fears, in particular, their fears about their parents’ mental illness and they discover that they are not alone in having these fears. The drama allows them to enter the minds of other characters and explore feelings that might be too frightening in ordinary life. They compose short playlets, writing a script together, which is a composite story based on their collective life experiences and preoccupations. These playlets are recorded and shared with their parents over pizza.

Very often the theme is suicide which reflects their worst fear, that they will find their parent has died and they were not there, or not able to, help. Our experience is that the parents of these children are surprised by the depth of understanding and the strength of their fears, often commenting,

“I didn’t know they knew so much, I thought I had protected them”.

This insight gives rise to a desire to talk openly about their illness with their children, which helps the children to understand the illness as an illness and not their fault. It relieves the children of the burden of responsibility and allows the family as a whole unit to be more open and more capable of taking steps to plan for the bad times.

We also work in schools with students and teachers to help them understand mental well-being and mental health and very recently we were asked to visit a Community College in Plymouth to work with the teachers and pupils on the topic of suicide. The request came as a result of two suicides during the summer break and their desire to talk openly about this with the students, to generate some guidelines for both staff and students in how to address the issue and help in some way, within the limits of their role.

We started the session with the assertion that most people contemplate suicide at some time in their lives and therefore we all have ideas about what might trigger that idea. Can anything be done to prevent suicide, what can be said, or how can friends, family and professionals help?

We asked the students for their ideas by enquiring “What makes suicide an attractive solution to distress?”. They came up with the idea that it would END something that had become unbearable, as well as gain control over something they felt they had lost control over, and were powerless to change.

We concluded that the people who are most vulnerable are those who are experiencing high levels of stress and have no control over the situation they are in – those who are lonely, socially isolated for some reason, and importantly, people who are being bullied at school.

A recent BBC News article highlighted one girl’s struggle:

“My upbringing was turbulent, with social workers, counsellors and house moves littering my first 13 years. My dad left when I was four months old and I cared for my mum who had major mental and physical health problems. But when I was 16, I couldn’t stay any longer and had nowhere to go, so I became homeless.”

“Life was bleak, I was tired and I couldn’t see a way out. Things got really bad and on Halloween in 2017, when I was 19, I took an overdose of prescription drugs. It put me in a coma and doctors told my mum to come to intensive care as they didn’t know if I would pull through. I am so lucky to have woken up. The overdose was a line in the sand for me and I knew I had to turn things around.”

In this case, she turned to suicide to ‘wake herself and others up to her distress and hopelessness’.

It should not have to be like this. We need to support families and young people better, noticing the signs early, finding preventive solutions and talking openly about mental illness. We should not wait until the point of crisis to provide them with the support they need.

As part of World Mental Health Day, we took some tips from Dr Alan Cooklin, psychiatrist and founder of Our Time charity, on how you might support someone who is feeling worried about a parent or may feel vulnerable themselves:

  • Make it a generic issue – rather than focusing in on the individual, make generic statements, such as: “some young people might…”; or talk about people you have known, if you don’t have your own personal experience to draw on;
  • Do not be afraid of tackling the issue by talking; try to be “matter of fact” and straightforward about it; don’t be fuzzy;
  • Stimulate memories about when the person felt good. It is useful to explain that many young people in this situation feel like it is permanent and that it won’t get better, however, this is not the case;
  • Encourage the young person to look ahead, e.g. in the form of diaries, ask the young person to think about how long the feeling lasted before, to help them identify patterns and predict when it will be better.

For details of further support or to talk to someone if you are worried about a parent, visit our Get Help page.