Teen suicide is a widespread and increasing tragedy. It has become the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24. One in four high school students reported in a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to either having a suicide attempting or seriously considering suicide in the past year.
The teenage years can be an extremely difficult time with high levels of insecurity, problems with friends and family, and significant hormonal changes. There are risk factors, or characteristics due to the person’s genetics or environment, that put certain teens at a higher risk for suicide. Awareness of these risks can help parents and caregivers effectively intervene.
Mental illness, such as depression, is the leading risk factor for suicide. Depression can make the common stressors of being a teen overwhelming and unbearable. Research shows that about 90 percent of individuals who die by suicide had a history of a psychiatric disorder, so it is important that parents and caregivers recognize symptoms and help teens get the appropriate mental health treatment.
Gender is another risk factor since males are more likely to complete suicide, while females are more likely to attempt suicide. Minority students are also at a higher suicide risk. Other significant risk factors for teen suicide include a past history of suicide attempts, a family history of mental illness or suicide attempts, substance abuse, exposure to trauma or abuse (including excessive bullying), chronic medical illness, loss or conflict with friends and family, and exposure to others who have committed suicide.
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Research shows that suicidal teenagers are likely to show signs of depression or distress, and that clear warning signs precede four out of five teen suicide attempts. Parents and caregivers need to learn to recognize warning signs of suicidal behavior as they might be the first to notice these symptoms and a possible pattern of behavior. These warning signs alone don’t necessarily indicate a clear suicide risk, but in combination or when resulting in a pattern may help to identify a high-risk teenager.
Possible warning signs of teen suicide include:
▪ Talking about suicide or making comments about harming oneself or disappearing
▪ Talking or writing about death and dying
▪ Dramatic mood swings
▪ Changes in personality
▪ Changes in sleep patterns and eating habits
▪ Increased alcohol and drug use
▪ Social withdrawal
▪ Acting impulsively or aggressively
▪ Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order with no logical explanation
▪ Appearing severely anxious or agitated
▪ Unexplained cuts or burns caused by self-injury
If there is any immediate danger of self-harm or suicide, your child needs to be evaluated in the emergency room. Caretakers should call 911 or other emergency numbers, and they can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for assistance.
If it seems like a teenager might be thinking about suicide, parents and caregivers should talk to them immediately and should not be afraid to directly ask about suicide. Talking about suicide will not put the idea in the person’s head, and it might be a relief for your teen to talk about the problem more openly. Support is one of the most important aspects of suicide prevention, and your teenager needs to know that he or she is loved and supported during this time. It is important to listen to what they have to say, and to not get angry or dismiss their problems as typical teenage drama.
All suicidal comments or threats should be taken very seriously. It is important for your teen to feel heard, as most teenagers believe that their parents and other adults don’t understand them. Concerned parents and caregivers must also safely store all firearms, alcohol and medication since access to these can significantly increase the risk of suicide.
It is extremely important to seek professional help for teens at risk of suicide. A child and adolescent psychologist or psychiatrist can help to diagnose and properly treat your teenager before the problem worsens. It is crucial that parents and caregivers are supportive of the treatment plan, since this will help the teen feel more supported and will increase the chances that he or she will follow the doctor’s recommendations.
Suicide and suicidal behavior are a major problem among young people, and may be prevented through recognition, intervention and the appropriate treatment. Parents and caregivers need to understand the warning signs and must act quickly to best help teens at risk of suicide. Children and adolescents can be seen for an evaluation through the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UHealth – University of Miami Health System. For more information call (305)243-2301 or (305) 355-7077, or visit psychiatry.med.miami.edu.
Rachel Neuhut, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UHealth – University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.