Teenagers who think of suicide often tell only their friends, and they make the friends promise to keep their suicidal thoughts secret. This puts the friends of a suicidal teen in a bind. Should they break their promise and tell an adult?
Telling an adult poses problems. Doing so might end the friendship. The suicidal teen may end up getting in trouble with their parents (sadly). They end up in a psychiatric hospital (unlikely). And the friend might be so angry that he or she never speaks again to the person who informed an adult.
These are legitimate worries. But if you are a teen and have a friend who is thinking of suicide, I hope you will consider this:
Would you rather that your friend be mad at you and alive, or in danger of dying by suicide? Worse, what if your friend dies and you did not do everything you could to help?
Living with Regret
In the suicide prevention field, we have a saying:
Better a mad friend than a dead friend.
This is blunt, but true. Years ago, I talked with a 17-year-old whose best friend had died by suicide. Her friend had confided in her that she was thinking of dying by suicide, and swore her to secrecy. The young woman I spoke with kept her promise.
When she learned of her friend’s suicide, she felt awful in more ways than one. Not only did she miss her friend greatly, grieve her loss. She also blamed herself for not getting help for her friend. It is a terrible weight to bear, making the “what if’s” all the more painful.
Telling an Adult
For these reasons, if you are a teen or even younger and a friend asks you to keep their suicidal thoughts secret, I hope that you will decide to tell an adult. You might tell your parents, your friend’s parents, a teacher, a coach, a minister, or some other adult about your friend’s state of mind.
You may have many reasons for not wanting to tell an adult, or for being afraid to. In the post 10 Reasons Teens Avoid Telling Parents about Suicidal Thoughts, I list some of the reasons teens find it hard to talk about suicide. Maybe you can even show that list to your parents or whatever adult you tell, in the hopes that it will help them to react more sensitively.
Things to Think About
Perhaps your friend will be mad at you. If so, perhaps they will forgive you when they feel better. And perhaps they will not be mad at all. Some teens are relieved when an adult enters the picture and gets them the help they need.
You may think it is safe to keep your friend’s secret, because you find it unlikely that your friend will really die by suicide. Chances are you are correct. In the year 2000, for example, an estimated 3 million people 12-17 years old seriously considered suicide or made an attempt that did not kill them. Of those 3 million, just over 1,000 died by suicide that year.
So maybe your friend will not act on their suicidal thoughts, in which case you may think afterward that there was no need to let an adult know.
But do you really want to take the chance that you are wrong?
© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com
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