If your adolescent child, family member, friend, or student were considering suicide, would you recognize the warning signs? If so, what would you do?
Facing Challenging Times
Adolescence is a time of hope and expectancy, as well as extreme disappointment and mood swings. It’s normal for teens to experience stress, confusion, and self-doubt. In addition to normal physical, hormonal, and emotional changes, teens confront many of the these additional challenges:
Academic pressures and overburdened school systems
Social demands to find acceptance among peers, to be attractive, or to date
Divorce, single-parent homes, or other instability in the home, such as abuse or violence
Confusion and shame about sexual identity or orientation
Teens may have fleeting thoughts or fantasies about suicide from time-to-time when they are
struggling. But most do not make a suicide attempt or gesture. However, when the pressure seems too great, a teen may feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness, which can lead to serious thoughts of suicide.
How do you know when a teen is really in need of help?
Looking at the Risk Factors
Teen suicide is often due to a combination of factors. These factors may be biological, psychological, and cultural. Family issues also play a role. These factors can interact with a significant life event, like the break-up of an important relationship.
Examples of factors that put a teen at risk for suicide include:
Taking antidepressants, especially when just starting them
Having conflicted feelings about sexual orientation—risk may be increased if the teen experiences social rejection or bullying because of sexual orientation
Having a family member, especially a parent, who has committed suicide
Other risk factors include:
Recent death of a loved one
Chronic physical illness
Anniversary of a past loss or major life event
Perfectionism and overachievement
Being Aware of the Warning Signs
Adolescent behavior is often perplexing, particularly to parents, who may not be able to tell what’s problematic and what is normal. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends being alert to the following signs that may indicate an increased risk of suicide:
Talking about death or dying
Experiencing a change in appetite, such as eating more or less than usual
Experiencing a change in sleeping patterns, such as sleeping more or less than usual
Withdrawing from people they care about
Abusing alcohol and drugs
Becoming violent or rebellious
Running away from home
Getting arrested or having other problems with the law
Ignoring personal hygiene and appearance
Feeling very bored, having a hard time concentrating, and doing poorly in school
Acting in a way that is unlike their usual personality
Having a lot of health complaints without physical cause, such as headaches, abdominal pain, or fatigue
No longer being interested in hobbies or other activities they used to enjoy
A teen who is planning to commit suicide may:
Talk about being a bad person or feels terrible about themself.
Say things like “I won’t be a problem much longer,” “You’ll never see me again,” or “There’s no use”.
Note: If a teen makes comments about suicide, always take these threats seriously.
Give away treasured belongings.
Have symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations or bizarre thoughts.
Pay attention if the teen in your life has any of the above risk factors and behaviors.
suicide threats seriously. In the very least, these threats mean that the teen is not coping well and needs help. Never dismiss a suicide attempt as attention-seeking behavior.
The teen who is struggling should be assessed and treated right away. Professional help and ongoing family support are extremely important. In some cases, the time leading up to a suicide may be relatively short. This emphasizes the need to reach out to the teen and connect with mental health services.
If you are unsure of how to get help, you can call:
A mental health therapist who specializes in working with teens—Working with an experienced therapist is crucial because the teen may have another condition that needs to be treated, like depression, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse.
A doctor or take the teen to the emergency room—In serious cases, the teen may need to be hospitalized.
A crisis hotline, such as 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
In addition to reaching out for help, take steps to keep your teen safe at home. For example, remove any guns, knives, medications, and poisons from the area.
Building Teen Support
Whether you are a parent of a teen or are someone who plays an important role in a teen's life, you can help prevent suicide by developing a good relationship that is based on mutual trust, openness, and healthy communication. Although this is best established very early in life, it’s never too late. You can improve your relationship with the teen in your life by:
Providing a stable environment that is both physically and emotionally safe
Spending regular quality time and having fun together
Listening to and really trying to understand what the youth is saying and feeling, without interrupting or trying to solve problems
Showing support and respect by allowing the teen to share thoughts in a safe environment
Encouraging the teen to express emotions, both positive and negative, in a healthy manner, by your own example
By being aware of suicide risk factors and warning signs, you can help teens get the support they needs to survive this challenging time in their lives. You can also help teens become more resilient to life's struggles by showing your care and concern.
Suicide. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/suicide.html. Updated July 2014. Accessed November 9, 2017.
Suicide support. Crisis Clinic website. Available at: https://crisisclinic.org/find-help/suicide-support. Accessed November 9, 2017.
Teen suicide. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Teen-Suicide-010.aspx. Updated October 2017. Accessed November 9, 2017.
van Geel A, Vedder P, Tanilon J. Relationship between peer victimization, cyberbullying, and suicide in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(5):435-442.
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