Learn the factors that make a young person more or less likely to attempt suicide and what you can do to help a struggling teen.
As the National Suicide Prevention Month comes to an end this week, it’s important that we continue to keep suicide risk in mind, especially among teens. Rates of suicidal behaviors in teens have increased over the past decade, and the numbers are horrifying.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 10-24. Moreover, a recent CDC survey found that 22% of high school students surveyed said they had seriously considered suicide within the past year. Eighteen percent said they’d made a suicide plan and 10% said they’d attempted suicide one or more times.
As a parent, it’s hard to think of a worse nightmare than your child dying by suicide. Aside from the devastating heartbreak, you can probably imagine how deafening the what-ifs and if-onlys would be. Questions like What did I miss? and What could I have done differently? would play over and over like a broken record.
While we can’t always prevent suicide, we can take steps to make it less likely. One step is to learn the risk factors and signs that might warn us. Another step is to learn about protective factors that we might be able to encourage in our children. Read on to learn more.
Illustration by Joseph Moore
Risk factors for suicide in teens
It’s rare that a single event or situation will cause a person to die by suicide. Instead, suicide is usually a result of multiple factors, including individual, relationship, community and societal factors. These factors can increase the possibility that a teen will attempt suicide.
A recent trauma or life crisis
This may include the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, a traumatic event or some other significant stressor.
Family history of suicide
An abundance of research suggests that suicidal behavior is heritable, meaning that a person’s genetic makeup can make them more likely to attempt suicide.
Depression and alcohol use disorder are the most prevalent diagnoses among people who die by suicide.
Lack of support for sexual orientation or gender identity
LGBTQ youth who experience low or moderate support from their families are much more likely to report attempting suicide than those who report high support .
Lack of social support
A teen who feels isolated from peers and significant adults may think that suicide is the only solution to their problems.
Being either the victim or perpetrator of bullying is associated with increased risk for suicidal behavior.
Barriers to mental health services
These may include not having reliable transportation, not being able to afford services, not being able to find a suitable provider, and other issues related to access.
Easy access to lethal means, including guns and pills
Key Protective Factors
These are some factors that may reduce a teen’s risk of attempting suicide.
- Receiving support from family and friends
- Feeling connected to school, community or other social institutions
- For LGBTQ youth, having even one accepting adult can reduce suicide risk by 40 percent .
Effective problem-solving or coping skills
Kids who learn to recognize a problem and come up with reasonable solutions are less likely to attempt suicide. Similarly, teaching kids effective ways to cope with stressors helps them manage ups and downs in a more balanced, healthy way.
Access to mental health services
Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide
Warning signs for suicide
If your teen is at higher risk for suicide, watch for these signs.
- Severe or overwhelming emotional pain or distress
- Expressing hopelessness – things will never get better, the future looks very dark, there’s no reason to live
- Talking about being a burden
- Giving away favorite possessions, tying up loose ends
- Talking or posting about dying. If a teen makes statements like these, pay attention!
- “I just want to disappear.”
- “I wish I was dead.”
- “You’d be better off if I was gone.”
- “Maybe I should jump off a bridge.”
- Worrisome behavior changes. These are especially troubling if they are in combination with the signs above.
- Withdrawal from social connections or situations
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Recently increased agitation or irritability
- Anger or hostility that seems unusual for them
- Suddenly seeming much calmer after a significant period of emotional distress. Sometimes, a person may seem “back to normal” because they’ve decided to end their lives and the decision has made them feel better.
What to do for a teen at risk for suicide
If your teen is in immediate danger, don’t leave them alone. Try to keep them as calm as possible and call 911 or take them to an emergency room.
Otherwise, here are some tips to help your teen in distress.
Talk to them
Ask them how they are feeling and listen without judgment. Ask them questions like:
- Are you feeling down or depressed?
- Have you been thinking about hurting or even killing yourself?
- Have you ever thought about hurting or killing yourself?
Don’t shy away from asking your teen explicitly about suicide. It may seem counterintuitive, but talking about suicide will not give them ideas or encourage them to harm themselves.
On the contrary, asking about suicide helps your teen feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts and helps them acknowledge and make sense of what they’re feeling. If they are thinking about suicide, you need to know about it!
If your teen is depressed, let them know that depression is temporary and treatable. If they are already in psychiatric treatment, call their doctor or therapist. Otherwise, make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional.
Validate their feelings
Don’t argue with them, minimize their feelings or tell them they’re wrong. Instead, empathize with their distress – “That sounds really hard.” “I’ve felt that way too.” “I know how painful that can be.”
Ask them to tell you what they’re concerned about and how you can help.
Show them love
When your teen is having a rough time, they need to hear how much you love them and how much you care about them. Find ways to convey your love to them in little and big ways. Show them how much they matter to you and don’t assume they already know.
Emphasize the positive
Do your best to put away criticism and contention. Make it a priority to do fun things together and interact in positive ways. Pick your battles carefully and focus on building positive connections.
If your kid is struggling, your goal is to help them see that they won’t feel like this forever. Difficult times pass and they will get through this. Positive experiences will help them imagine a brighter future.
Watch over them
Keep track of where your teen is and what they’re doing on social media. Make an effort to get to know their friends and their friends’ parents. Talk to your child’s teachers and other school personnel to assess your child’s safety at school.
Focus on home safety
Lock up guns and remove access to medications not prescribed to them.
Reach out for professional help
Talk to your child’s doctor or get referrals from your child’s school. If possible, look for a mental health professional who has experience working with suicidal teens.
Give your teen crisis line information
Tell your teen about the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline which they can reach by either calling 988 or texting HOME to 741741. If they call or text, they will reach a crisis counselor.
We have compiled a list of crisis line numbers and organizations here. Some of these are specifically for kids and teens.
If your child might benefit from talking to a professional, call your doctor or contact Athena Care, for mental health care in Tennessee.
One of our Care Coordinators will help you get the care you need.
Rachel Swan, MS
Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.