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Talking with Young People About Depression & Suicide

Laura E. Saponara serves as a Senior Communications Consultant for Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit.

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death

Deciphering Robin Williams’ magic is a tall order. What was it that was happening within an utterly rare human being like Williams, a man of acute ingenuity whose mind and body brought forth an indescribably kinetic performance style?

We may never know the answers. Yet, even as we adore him and appreciate his gifts, educators and parents can also take the opportunity of his passing to listen closely to adolescents who may be wrestling with how a man who summoned so much laughter could have suffered such distress.


Though it doesn’t take up the issue of suicide specifically, the Public Broadcasting System’s PBS Parents website contains a helpful list of tips for talking with the young people in our lives about disturbing headline news. The “Strategies for Talking and Listening” page suggests starting out by finding out what the child or teen knows, then asking follow up questions and offering simple explanations, keeping the details age-appropriate (meaning sparse for young children).

Similarly, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers several pages on their website devoted to helping adults help children understand suicide, with tips for talking truthfully, encouraging questions and providing reassurance.

Of course, a conversation about suicide often begets a conversation about mental health and, most poignantly, about depression. For some of us, Williams’ death may provide an opportunity to listen and hear a young person who is experiencing depressive symptoms or is concerned about the psychological well-being of a friend or family member.

The good news is that the skillful, empathic people who are determined to de-stigmatize mental illness are making it easier and easier to open up dialog about depression. A website full of useful resources is ready for your fingertips, thanks to the American School Counselors’ Association (ASCA).

The site helps readers to quickly learn the basic symptoms of depression in young people − including those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder − and to understand what a therapist does and how to choose one. You can also get some background on the use of alternative approaches for helping adolescents manage anxiety and depression, such as wilderness therapy, therapy dogs and (with a strong cautionary note) boot camp.

School-wide screening for depression may become more popular, if movements toward school-based prevention continue to gain traction. A journal article in Professional School Counseling describes the experience of one high school counselor in Minnesota that combines classroom guidance, screening and referrals for outside mental health services.

A site that may be particularly helpful for adolescents is ActiveMinds, with its 10 Tips for Helping a Friend with a Mental Health Concern. The organization, founded by Alison Malmon after her son Brian’s suicide, aims to “send silence packing” and “change the conversation around mental health.”

All of these different resources are linked to via the ASCA page noted above.

The buzz online that began with the announcement of Williams’ death continues, and young people are a significant, active audience. The thoughts and questions that arise tell us something about how they are thinking about depression and suicide. If we listen carefully, we may find opportunities to communicate that depression can be a serious illness. And that many people find ways to manage depression, even at a young age.

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