Is your child at risk of self-harm or suicide?

You may have noticed recent media reports about harmful content targeting young people online, the most concerning being the so-called ‘Blue Whale’ game. According to reports, the game involves undertaking a series of challenges that promote self-harm and suicide. Some experts close to the phenomena have questioned its existence. Regardless, we still urge parents, carers, and school communities to be aware of the dangers and risks associated for young people who may have been exposed to any content that plays upon their emotional or psychological vulnerabilities or is perpetuated by popular or social media.

Young people can easily connect with a story—especially one that is intertwined in pop culture. Portrayal of self-harm or suicide such as in popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why can be taken out of context, particularly for those that are vulnerable, impulsive or have been experiencing issues with mental health and distress.

Any media which romanticises and entices self-harm or suicide is concerning, as some may perceive this as ‘dark and edgy.’ We also know that young people can at times accept information from peers under pressure even if it conflicts with their own values and beliefs.

Finally, we do not want young people to be desensitised to self-harm or suicide through exposure to this kind of content in popular media – we want them to understand the gravity and finality of such actions – so it is important we, as parents, are engaged with our kids and keep the lines of communication open.

If you are concerned about your child’s susceptibility or likelihood to self-harm or suicide, be proactive, look out for signs, talk about it and familiarise yourself with the support available to you and your child, including the links we have provided below.

What to look out for

Mental health experts tell us that self-harm and suicide are different actions. In most cases, self-harm is not meant to be fatal. It’s generally used as a coping mechanism or as a way to ease intense emotional distress or negative feelings.

While it can be confronting to find out that your child is self-harming, it’s important to be vigilant, especially if your child is vulnerable and actively seeking out this kind of content. Depending on your child and the situation, some of the things to look out for include:

  • physical signs of self-harm like unexplained scars, burns, traces of blood or wearing long sleeves and pants in warm weather
  • sleeping more or less
  • changes in appetite and energy
  • defeatist attitude
  • significant changes in friendship groups
  • a decline in school work
  • changes to daily routinechanges to appearance—weight loss or gain
  • potential triggers such as break-ups, failing driving tests, missing out on a job/being fired or substance abuse.

Have a conversation with your child

Conversations about self-harm or suicide can be difficult, but having open and ongoing discussions can help to build a trusting relationship and create a safe place for your child to talk about their feelings. Even if you don’t think your child is at risk, a conversation can help in case they are worried about a friend.

When talking to your child about these issues, try to:

  • be open and non-judgmental—let them do the talking and don’t be afraid to ask them directly about ‘suicide.’ If your child has thoughts of suicide or may have a plan to commit suicide, see below for important contacts and urgent help
  • have these conversations in a relaxed setting. If you think it will be hard to keep your child engaged, try having the talk while doing something together, like a long walk
  • be understanding and don’t dismiss how they are feeling, especially if they admit to self-harm or have had thoughts of suicide
  • empower your child to make their own choices—let them know that it’s OK to say no to friends or situations they may feel uncomfortable and unsafe in
  • in the case of 13 Reasons Why, if your child wants to watch the series or feels affected by its content, ReachOut offers guidance on how to manage this
  • guide your children on the actions they can take to protect themselves online. This includes editing privacy settings, blocking content they don’t want to see on their news feeds, and reporting (see our guide on how to adjust your privacy settings on games, apps and social media sites)
  • most importantly, remind your child that they can talk to you about anything.

Videos and other resources on self-harm and suicide at headspace can also help with getting that conversation started.

If you find that your child won’t talk to you but still might be in need of help look to other trusted adults, like an aunt, uncle or family friend they can speak to and work with them on getting appropriate support.

What actions can I take?

Don’t ignore your gut instincts if you are concerned about your child’s behaviour. It’s important to get the right support if your child is self-harming and / or has thoughts of suicide:

  • in the case of immediate harm, your response should be to seek medical help—call Triple Zero (000) or take your child to an emergency department at the nearest hospital
  • visit your GP for a referral
  • talk to your child’s school for in-school support and monitoring
  • reach out to headspace, ReachOut or Kids Helpline for free resources and support
  • The Butterfly Foundation provides support for eating disorders and body image issues. For help call 1800 334 673.

Supporting someone that self-harms can be a difficult and stressful experience—Parent Line can help. ReachOut also have specific information and support for parents on self-harm and suicide.