When a celebrity death is highly publicised, it may seem inevitable that children will hear about it, be it in passing or more detail. While children and teens may not have known about the celebrity beforehand, it can be virtually impossible to avoid hearing the speculation on social media and in the news.
Even if you are used to having frank conversations with your children, introducing them to mental health as a whole may seem tricky, let alone knowing how to bring up sensitive topics like suicide. It’s important to take the time to talk about suicide, to see how much children understand, to answer any questions they may have and, importantly, to reassure them.
Talking about suicide may be difficult, but it doesn’t give people the idea to do it. Talking helps open up an honest dialogue that many find to be a relief, as it can help them find ways to get through what they are feeling. By starting these dialogues with children and teens, we help de-stigmatise mental health concerns, dispel common myths and misconceptions, reassure and support those who may be worried for themselves or others.
It’s important to remember to be honest if you don’t know the answers to your children’s questions. Explaining suicide can be challenging, let alone trying to do so alongside overwhelming media attention. Celebrities can seem like huge, successful, larger than life figures who have everything going for them.
Children and teens may find it difficult to separate the idea of a celebrity’s public persona with their lives outside of the media. It’s worth emphasising that what we see and hear online, in papers and on the TV may not be the full picture. Just like we wouldn’t assume we know everything about a friend – we only know what we see of them ourselves and hear from other people – we can’t assume what we are hearing is the whole picture about a celebrity’s death.
Through opening the doors to conversation with children and teens early we can lay the foundations for them to feel comfortable and confident to speak up when they see or feel something that concerns them personally, through friends or classmates.
Children six and under
Stick to the basics. If younger children are asking questions or showing an interest in the news, try to give them simple answers. Let them know that the person has died, they were ill, and it is really sad. Follow their lead and avoid offering additional information they may not be ready for.
Children aged seven to 11
Keep your answers short but honest. Let them lead the conversation. It’s important to emphasise that the death is sad, and that the person who died was ill. Make it clear your child can ask questions, and it’s ok to talk about things even if they are sad. Let them guide the conversation with follow-up questions (avoid overwhelming them with information they may not want or be ready for) and make sure they know they can bring the topic up again if they think of anything they want to ask later.
For tweens to mid-teens
Be prepared for more detailed questions and discussions. Try starting the conversation by asking what they have already heard about the news, or what they know about suicide. This not only lets you know a bit more about what they know, but can also highlight any questions or misconceptions that may have formed, giving you a basis for where to steer the conversation and if any additional support may be needed.
Ask clear questions. Don’t be afraid to ask if they have thought about suicide, or if it’s something their friends have discussed. Focus on creating an open dialogue where they feel like they can come to you with any personal questions or concerns. Creating a point of contact where they feel comfortable to turn for support if they’re worried about themselves or others is vital. Highlight any other adults they can speak to, or any online places they can turn to for free, confidential support and information like Samaritans or Young Minds.
Conversations with older teens can be very similar to those with tweens and mid-tweens. Rather than asking what they ‘would do if’ they were worried, shift the focus to ‘what will you do when’ they are worried about themselves or friends. With one in four of us experiencing a mental health condition during our lifetime, the likelihood of them encountering a friend or classmate in need of support, or needing to seek out additional support themselves for any number of reasons is high.
Through talking about ways to spot warning signs, how to find help and support, and the benefit of speaking up when we see something concerning, it can help build their confidence to recognise signs they or someone they care about may need additional help, and help them know where they can turn.
Make it clear that there is nothing weird, bad, or weak about needing help and support. We all have mental health. Some of us just need a little extra support at times to keep ourselves healthy, happy, and safe.
Even children who have grown into young adults and flown the nest can still benefit from a conversation and supportive voice – especially for those who may have friends or classmates who have completed suicide. Reach out to let them know that you are there to talk if they need anything. Keep things calm and reassuring, and be prepared to reach out again later if the initial timing wasn’t quite right.
Regardless of who you are talking with, be careful with your language choice and tone. Be careful not to glamourise the idea of suicide, as some young people may see the international outpouring of support and kind words as a form of positive attention. If you aren’t ready to have the conversation or find the subject triggering, don’t be afraid to let them know you aren’t ready to talk about it. Try and have an alternative adult you can recommend for them to speak with who may feel more comfortable answering questions, or see if there is any professional support they could turn to at school.
Make it clear you aren’t shutting down the conversation, and that there are always people who they can go to with any worries or concerns. This can discourage them from seeking answers from unreliable sources, accepting rumours or forming misconceptions about suicide and mental health support.
It can be beneficial to have positive examples of celebrities who have struggled with their mental health, but have gone on to talk about their experiences, sought help, and helped open up the dialogue about mental health struggles.
Celebrities including Adele, J.K. Rowling, Dwayne Johnson, and Jared Padalecki have each opened up about their experiences with depression. Actors Ryan Reynolds, Zendaya, and Selena Gomez, along with singers Lady Gaga and Zayn Malik have spoken openly about their experiences with anxiety, with Nicki Minaj opening up about her experience with suicidal thoughts. Giving teens examples of celebrities or inspirational writers that have found ways to work with/through their mental health struggles can be reassuring for some teens, and can help highlight a different side of mental health.
If you are worried someone you know may be feeling suicidal, you can find more information on how to help someone who is suicidal or check our advice from trained counsellor Justin on talking about suicide.
If you are concerned about someone’s immediate health or well-being, or want to talk to someone confidentially, the Samaritans are open year-around to speak to free on 116 123 or by email. Samaritans do not know who callers are or where you are located. They are there to offer judgement-free listening, day or night.