Ways to have conversations with your teenagers about suicide

SPOKANE, Wash. — Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in Washington, and every 11 minutes someone will pass away, leaving a void in the lives of those they touched. However, suicide loss survivors say proactive conversations can be key to save lives.

“It’s a really uncomfortable and awkward conversation to have, and I understand that, and I know it can still be done gracefully with some patience and care,” said Sabrina Votava.

Sabrina is a mental health counselor at WSU Spokane. She’s committed to helping students work through struggles they’re having and wants them to know there is hope after losing her two brothers, Zach and Kacey, to suicide just six months apart when she was in college. Now, she also runs FailSafe for Life, a local non-profit working to equip the community with tools and education to fight suicide.

For generations, talking about suicide was off limits. It was uncomfortable, and people weren’t sure what to say. Today, those stigmas still remain and affect suicide loss survivors and those who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.

“As a survivor, you have all this stigma around you, and you just want to scream. You just want to talk it out, and sometimes you can’t,” said Tracy Oeser.

Tracy lost her daughter Chelsie when she was only 16. She had struggled with mental health, and Tracy did her best to help her daughter with counseling, therapy and medication. Years later, Chelsie’s passing is the focus of her mission — to be there for other suicide loss survivors and help them through the grieving process with her organization Journey Thru Grief. Tracy didn’t have many people she could turn to as she grieved and says that was sometimes unbearable as she coped with the loss of her beloved daughter.

Phil Tyler knows the pain of losing a child, too. His son Devon lost his life to suicide when he was only 22. Phil says how he was raised and how he raised Devon could have played a role in his passing.

“He suppressed his emotions to the point where he was hurting so much he didn’t want to show his hurt to everyone and to the world, and he ended up taking his life,” Phil said.

He says there’s a stigma around men to hold their emotions in and not talk about their feelings if they’re struggling, but now he’s persistent and proactive with having these discussions with his other son and says checking in on the men in your life is extremely important.

“‘Hey son, I love you. I just want to check in and see how you’re doing today,'” he explained. “‘How was your day?’ Then I just pause, and sometimes that long pause is uncomfortable, but it forces him then to respond.”

In 2019, the suicide rate for men was 3.6 times higher for men than women.

Now, Tracy, Phil and Sabrina want others to have conversations about suicide sooner rather than later. The conversations can be tough, and it’s hard to know where to start. Here’s a simple acronym you can use when you have these tough conversations with your loved ones. Look for the FACTS.

  • F — how are they feeling?
  • A — how are they acting? Are they giving away important items, or have they stopped doing things they love?
  • C — Are you noticing changes?
  • T — Have they made threats?
  • S — Has their situation changed, and/or have they suffered a major loss recently?

“What I learned was it’s important to keep up that dialogue even if the child says ‘Oh, I’m fine’,” Tracy said. “‘I don’t have a problem. Everything’s good.’ Press them and continue to say ‘Okay good, are you sure’?”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is help available. You can call the National Suicide Hotline at 1- 800-273-8255. Also, in Washington, you can text the Crisis Text Line at 741741 with the message “HEAL”.

Every life matters and is irreplaceable, which is why Sabrina, Phil and Tracy fight everyday to end suicide and save lives.