A useful guide for parents: An expert explains how to talk to your teen about suicide.

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Content warning: This article deals with suicide and may be triggering for some readers. 

Every time we hear the heartbreaking story of another teen driven to suicide, it rustles up a fear in parents. Especially parents who have teens themselves.

Could it happen to my child? How worried should I be? How do I ask them if they’re OK? Is social media all to blame?

With these questions swirling in our heads, we decided to get some information. Headspace’s Head of Clinical Practice, Vikki Ryall, joined our parenting podcast This Glorious Mess to share her expert advice for parents on dealing with teen suicide.

And the first thing she told us is to be alert but not alarmed. Breathe.

LISTEN: Vikki Ryall shares her advice for parents who have concerns about their teen’s mental health. 

According to Ryall, teen suicide and self harm is, sadly, on the rise. And it’s understandable that parents are worried. So what exactly is to blame?

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In the case of Northern Territory teenager, Dolly Everett, her family said it was caused by social media. And specifically, cyber-bullying.

In the days following the 14-year-old’s suicide, Dolly’s father wrote a poignant Facebook post, imploring people to “stop the bullies.”

“This week has been an example of how social media should be used, it has also been an example of how it shouldn’t be,” Tick Everett wrote.

Ryall agrees that cyber-bullying is a big factor, adding, “we’ve talked about peer pressure for along time, and it’s magnified by social media.”

“I’m not demonising technology, there are also some pretty amazing things about social media in the mental health space,” she said.

The mental health professional suggests setting some rules around your child’s social media use.

“What’s reasonable? Think about the age of your young person. If they’re 11, 12, 13, there are particular rules – they can’t set up social media accounts until they’re 13.”

Make sure you have a conversation with them about it. By including your child in the discussion, your rules won’t come across as a punishment or seem too controlling.

“Also think about your own behaviour on social media,” Ryall added.

“Particularly through adolescence, young people are very influenced by what their parents do, even more where that is different to what they say. We as parents need to walk the walk.”

The death of former Akubra model Dolly Everett sparked concerns in Australian parents. Image: Facebook

A mother herself, Ryall says the most important thing you need to remember is that you know your child. Trust your instincts.

"When things like this happen in the media, parents can lose a bit of confidence in recognising that they will notice changes in their own children," Ryall said.

Stay vigilant, watching for behaviour that seems out of the ordinary or concerning.

So what do you do if you have noticed a change in behaviour? If your teen has stopped seeing their friends, is withdrawn, or seems unhappy?

The first step is to get some information. Because knowledge is power. Ryall suggests visiting the Headspace website, where you'll find useful fact sheets and information on youth mental health.

Next, keep communication open with your child and keep it entirely free of judgement.

"If you have particular concerns, be open and honest about what those concerns are," Ryall added.

Even if you just get a grunt, "be persistent, don't be discouraged... And don't stop after one failed attempt."

One of the best things you can do is to hold weekly family dinners. Spending time with your teens is important, and especially as they get older and have more and more on outside the family, scheduling in time to see each other and chat is a must.

If they're not opening up to you, don't be afraid to send them to a friend, teacher or family member.

"You can mention another trusted adult that you would feel confident with. I think that's a really lovely way for parents to respect the increasing independence of the young person. Most parents I see are absolutely happy for their young person to talk to someone else and not know the ins and outs of that conversation, as long as they as they recognise they'll be informed of particular things," Ryall explained.

While this advice may seem straightforward, Ryall says these are the sorts of things that people forget when they get worried.

If all else fails, the best thing you can say to your child is, "I love you, I'm concerned about this, I'm here, I might not be the person you want to talk to - and that's fine - but I'm going to keep checking in with you because I love you and I want you to have someone to talk to."

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local Headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

To hear the full interview and more helpful advice from Headspace, listen to the full episode of This Glorious Mess here:

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