Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Fears and worries

When young people harm themselves families are often worried that they may go on to die by suicide. Although there is evidence that people who have self-harmed do have a higher risk of suicide, this is a very rare event. The parents and carers we spoke to told us about different experiences of their children’s suicidal behaviour and their fears for the future.

A few of the young people had made serious attempts to kill themselves. Erica’s daughter had planned her overdose for some time. She left farewell notes and a text telling her mother that she loved her, and not to blame herself. Fiona’s son tried various different methods. Jane Z thought her daughter meant to die when she took an overdose and the only reason she didn’t try again was because she didn’t want to risk not succeeding. Susan Z’s daughter took an overdose and texted her mother to say goodbye.
Several parents talked about times when their children threatened suicide or had suicidal thoughts. Debbie was distraught when her daughter told her that she had written down plans to kill herself. When Joanna’s daughter was depressed ‘she was fighting suicide on an hourly basis. She had to really work hard not to kill herself’. Until her daughter admitted to a clinician that she had suicidal thoughts Gwendoline never dreamt that she felt so bad. ‘She seemed such a happy child’, Gwendoline told us. Some parents weren’t sure whether their child wanted to die, while others thought they didn’t mind whether they lived or died. ‘I think she was ambivalent,’ Liz said of her daughter’s overdose. ‘Did she want to die? I don’t think she really knew. I think she was desperate for something but I don’t think she really knew if she wanted to die or not.’ Alexis’s daughter told her she didn’t want to kill herself, but she wanted the ‘stuff in her head to stop’. Alexis told us ‘I don’t believe for a moment that she wanted to die. She said she didn’t want to die but it got too painful.’
Anna was sure that her daughter was not suicidal. ‘I know that she falls into high risk categories,’ she told us, ‘But no, she’s never really expressed any intent to [take her own life], the only thing she talks about is what she wants to do with her life. And that’s been consistent all the way through. She’s always had career goals.’

Fiona, Annette and Joanna vividly expressed the fear that their child might die by suicide. Fiona said even when her son was doing well, ‘there’s this constant, when the phone rings, you get that instant, “Is it to do with that [suicide]?”' Joanna told us she worried about it ‘Every day, when I don’t get a text from her or when she sleeps for too long…This is absolute, nearly an expectation.’ However, Gwendoline was reassured when her daughter said she would never act on her thoughts of suicide. Jane S and Nick didn’t think their children wanted to die, but were concerned that they might accidentally go too far. ‘I think I was more worried about unintentional, sort of cutting going wrong than I was about actually her taking her own life but you can never be sure’ Jane said. Some parents told us how they tried to persuade their children not to attempt suicide. 
Parents sometimes grew to understand their children's suicidal feelings and behaviour a bit better by reading, reflecting on their own experiences, or being provoked into looking at things in a different way.

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