Suicide is the act of intentionally taking your own life. Sadly, it’s among the leading causes of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 24.
Thinking about suicide, also known as suicidal ideation, is not uncommon with over 1 in 10 American young adults reporting serious suicidal thoughts. For many teens, thinking about suicide or even taking steps to plan and attempt suicide does not necessarily mean they want to die. It indicates they are in serious mental pain and do not want to live the life they currently have. With careful and sensitive interventions, we can encourage and support our teens to work through emotional issues safely. In this article, we’ll consider some of the warning signs and indicators that your teen might be considering suicide. We’ll also drill into practical strategies to support your teen in speaking about suicide and implementing preventative measures that support your child.
Why Do Teens Consider Suicide?
Suicide offers an immediate end to the stress and pressure that a person may be experiencing. When our ability to cope is overwhelmed by challenges and problems, we can begin to feel hopeless. Teens who experience difficulties in their life, and cannot access support networks and resources to help them manage difficulties may cause them to consider suicide as a “way out”.
Teens may consider suicide because of pressure from peers, bullying, academic stress, abuse or family breakdown. We know that stress resulting from prejudice and discrimination is a known risk factor for suicide attempts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.
Which Teens Are at Risk for Suicide?
The teenage years are marked by transition, and some teens have a harder time adjusting to adulthood than others. There are pressures coming from all different directions—to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly. Additional pressures, including bullying, divorce, moving, a parent leaving home due to military service or parental separation, and financial changes, can all lead to greater risk for suicidal ideation.
While younger preteens and teens have a lower rate of suicide than older adolescents, there has been a significant rise in the suicide rate among youth ages 10 to 24. Suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death for this age group, accounting for 425 deaths per year and surpassing the death rate for traffic accidents, which is the most common cause of death for young people.
It is helpful to gain a sense of what factors increase someone’s likelihood of dying by suicide. When we study facts and statistics about people who report suicide ideation and/or attempt suicide, it’s possible to identify common risk factors that point towards increased probability of suicide ideation and/or behavior.
The main suicide risk factors relevant to teens include:
- Prior suicide attempt(s) or family history of suicide
- Depression and other mental health disorders
- Feelings of distress, irritability, or agitation
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often come with depression
- Substance abuse disorder
- Family violence, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Death of a loved one
- Social problems: particularly family stress, separation, divorce, social isolation
- Having guns or other firearms in the home, or other means to complete suicide
- Medical illness
- Lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers, and feelings of social isolation
- Struggling with their gender identity and/or sexuality in an unsupportive family or community
- First week following admission to psychiatric setting or first month following discharge from a psychiatric setting
It is also important to highlight protective factors. These are things that, statistically, reduce a person’s likelihood of suicide ideation or behavior. Protective factors associated with suicide have been demonstrated to include:
- Effective mental health care
- Connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions
- Problem-solving skills and other personal coping strategies
- A sense of self-esteem and a sense of purpose or meaning in life
- Talk therapy with qualified therapists
- Cultural, religious, or personal beliefs that discourage suicide
What Are the Warning Signs of Suicide?
There are warning signs that can indicate someone may be contemplating suicide. It is helpful to be curious about any of these signs you observe in your teen. They may be coincidental and may not point towards suicide. They do, however, invite open communication which can be an important step towards supporting anyone considering suicide.
Broadly speaking, the warning signs of suicide among teens can fall into a few different categories:
- Physical signs
Warning Signs of Teen Suicide
Action warning signs
Action signs include searching for a method or seeking access to medicines and other items that may be used in a suicide attempt.
Verbal warning signs
Word signs include threatening to hurt or take their own life and / or say phrases such as “I can’t take it anymore”.
Feeling Warning signs
Feeling signs including expressing sadness, hopelessness or anger.
Physical warning signs
Physical warning signs include a lack of interest in maintaining personal hygiene and physical appearance, as well as changes in their appetite or weight.
If you spot any of the following warning signs in your teen, consider taking some form of action to understand what might be going on for your teen:
- They often talk or write about death, dying or suicide
- Saying “I wish I hadn’t been born,” “If I see you again…” and/or “I’d be better off dead.”
- Demonstrating feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and being trapped or a burden.
- Self-loathing, self-hatred
- Withdrawing from others and increasing social isolation
- Self-destructive behavior: increased alcohol or drug use, reckless driving, unsafe sex
- Taking unnecessary risks
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
- Showing extreme mood swings
What Can Parents Do?
Parents have a crucial role in supporting their teens to stay safe. You know your own children and are well placed to spot unusual behavior and talk that causes you concern. You are also in the best position to start the conversation about mental health with your teen.
Whilst many parents may feel apprehensive about speaking with their teen about suicide, it is important to show you are there to support your teen with whatever they might be going through. Open and regular communication with your teen is a great preventative measure, too, as it increases your teen’s connection with you as a supportive resource and safe haven in times of trouble.
Here are some common myths and misconceptions about suicide, and what actions to take instead.
Talk about suicide with your teen.
University of Texas researchers found that asking someone directly, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” might actually be the question to help save their life.
If you are worried about your teen, ask them directly if they are tinking of harming themselves in any way. Often, teens who are feeling suicidal don’t want to worry or burden anyone with how they feel and so they don’t discuss it. However, by asking your teen directly about suicide, you give them permission to tell you how they feel.
People who have felt suicidal will often say what a huge relief it was to be able to talk about what they were experiencing. Once someone starts talking, they’ve got a better chance of discovering options that aren't suicide. They feel heard, and hopefully, less trapped. Their feelings are validated, and they know that somebody cares about them.
Stay alert and look for warning signs.
While people express themselves differently, there are usually warning signs to look out for in others that may signal they are in distress.
- A noticeable change in behavior (euphoria or sadness)
- Signs of depression (sleeping problems, changes in appetite, feelings of hopelessness, etc.)
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Obsession with death
- Decline in performance or participation in activities
- Giving away prized possessions
- Unusual purchases (weapon, rope, pills)
- Sudden happiness after a prolonged depression
- Talking or joking about suicide or dying
- Withdrawal from friends or family or saying goodbye to them
- Previous suicide attempts
- Statements about feeling hopeless, worthless, helpless
- Inability to concentrate or trouble to remember
- Chronic pain or frequent complaints of physical symptoms
Help your teen with personal problems, no matter how small or insignificant.
Some adults feel that kids who voice difficulties in dealing with personal problems are "just doing it for attention." Consider the potential cost of ignoring your teen; it may increase the chance of them harming themselves.
Suicidal thoughts are often attributed to mental health conditions. However, suicide is rarely caused by a single factor. In fact, studies tell us that approximately 54% of people who have died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition.
Suicidal crises are usually short-term instances and generally come about during periods of intense, painful emotions. As a parent, your role is to help your teen survive those acute, suicidal crisis periods until the self-harmful thoughts pass. With professional help, ongoing support and treatment, people who have had suicidal thoughts can live long, healthy lives.
If you’d like to learn more about specific steps you can take when speaking with someone about suicide, the Bethe1To campaign from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has some helpful strategies.
If you're worried about your teen or another child, take it seriously and talk to them right away. You also can turn to these resources for 24/7 help:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or 988 or text CONNECT to 741741. You also can use the Lifeline Chat feature.
- Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ community: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. You can also contact them through their website.
These toll-free lines are staffed by people who are trained to help. The calls are confidential. If necessary, call 9-1-1 for immediate help.