For any parent, teacher or carer, hearing a child say 'I want to kill myself' is a heart stopping moment. In the following seconds, time either stands still or comes rushing at you like a speed train. It might seem impossible to find the right words.
I write this article from experience because this happened to me and I learnt a lot that day. I want to convey what I think is an appropriate and measured response to what is, surely, a frightened and confused child.
First, don't panic. The fact that a child is saying to YOU that they want to kill themselves is a sign that you are trusted enough for them to impart their deepest distress. Your panic will alarm them but staying composed and restrained will calm them.
Second, ask them to explain why. A distressed child needs to talk and they could be bursting with turmoil. Be composed and still. This will indicate you are there to listen. Look at them with gentle eyes and hold your hands out with unclenched fists. Make yourself physically and emotionally available. Become quiet and present. This will indicate that you're 100% attentive.
You may need to suggest you both go somewhere private and quiet.
Third, once they've told you why they feel like they want to kill themselves it's important that you tell them that you UNDERSTAND that they feel so bad they think they have no choice except to end their life.
You will now have inkling as to what is bothering them and this maybe beyond your own belief. You may struggle to see why such a 'trivial' (in your eyes) event or rebuff etc. has caused them so much pain. If you suspend judgement and accept that this is how it is for them, you will be able to help them more effectively. And what they have told you may be the tip of the iceberg on a lot of other problems.
Fourth, ask them what you can do to help. They will need an immediate solution to the crisis that's brought them to this point. It's important not to let go or hand over the child to another person until this crisis is over. The child has come to you and they will need you to help them through it.
Fifth, get long term support in place as quickly as possible. This may not be in your remit and you have to hand the child over to professionals. It's important that the child knows you are there for them until the long term support takes hold and, then, you can let go. This is particularly important if you are not the parent because the child may be relying on you until the bond with another adult takes over.
Sometimes we hear people say 'oh, he/she's looking for attention'. Yes, they are looking for attention and that's exactly what they need - our attention. If a child says it over and over again but you know they don't mean it, they still need attention because they're trying to get their needs met and perhaps the only way they know how to ask for help is to be dramatic.
When I was privy to a child saying they wanted to kill themselves, it was because they thought they were in big trouble. When we unravelled the situation, of course they weren't. Once the immediate crisis was over we were able to introduce some professional support for this child and they overcame the bigger issues. This story had a happy ending.