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Teen Suicide

What is teen suicide?

Suicide is when a person causes their own death on purpose. Before trying to take their own life, a teen may have thoughts of wanting to die. This is called suicidal ideation. The teen may also have suicidal behavior. That’s when a teen is focused on doing things that cause their own death.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people ages 15 to 24. The CDC reports that:

  • Boys are 4 times more likely to die from suicide than girls.

  • Girls are more likely to try to commit suicide than boys.

  • Guns are used in more than half of all youth suicides.

What causes a teen to attempt suicide?

The teen years are a stressful time. They are filled with major changes. These include body changes, changes in thoughts, and changes in feelings. Strong feelings of stress, confusion, fear, and doubt may affect a teen’s problem-solving and decision-making. They may also feel a pressure to succeed.

For some teens, normal developmental changes can be very unsettling when combined with other events, such as:

  • Changes in their families, such as divorce, siblings moving out, or moving to a new town

  • Changes in friendships

  • Stress from social media activities, including being a victim on cyber bullying

  • Problems in school

  • Other losses

These problems may seem too hard or embarrassing to overcome. For some, suicide may seem like a solution.

Which teens are at risk for suicide?

A teen’s risk for suicide varies with age, gender, and cultural and social influences. Risk factors may change over time. They are:

  • One or more mental or substance abuse problems

  • Impulsive behaviors

  • Stressful life events such as being bullied or recent losses, such as the death of a parent

  • Family history of mental or substance abuse problems

  • Family history of suicide

  • Family violence, including physical, sexual, or verbal or emotional abuse

  • Past suicide attempt

  • Easy access to guns or prescription medicines in the home

  • Imprisonment

  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, such as from family or peers, in the news, or in fiction stories

What are the warning signs of teen suicide?

Many of the warning signs of suicide are also symptoms of depression. They are:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits

  • Loss of interest in normal activities

  • Withdrawal from friends and family members

  • Acting-out behaviors and running away

  • Alcohol or drug use

  • Neglecting their personal appearance

  • Unnecessary risk-taking

  • Obsession with death and dying

  • More physical complaints often linked to emotional distress, such as stomachaches, headaches, and extreme tiredness (fatigue)

  • Loss of interest in school or schoolwork

  • Feeling bored

  • Problems focusing

  • Feeling they wants to die

  • Lack of response to praise

Another warning sign is making plans or efforts toward committing suicide:

  • Says “I want to kill myself,” or “I'm going to commit suicide.”

  • Gives verbal hints, such as “I won't be a problem much longer,” or “If anything happens to me, I want you to know ....”

  • Gives away favorite things or throws away important belongings

  • Becomes suddenly cheerful after being depressed

  • May express strange thoughts

  • Writes 1 or more suicide notes

These warning signs may seem like other health problems. Have your teen see their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is a teen diagnosed as being suicidal?

Threats of suicide are a cry for help. Always take such statements, thoughts, behaviors, or plans very seriously. Any teen who expresses thoughts of suicide should not be left alone and should be evaluated right away. Talk with your teen’s healthcare provider about suicide and have a written emergency plan that you share with significant others.

Many parents develop a written contract with their children. In it, the teen agrees to alert parents if they are starting to have thoughts of self-harm. The parents agree to help the child interrupt the behavior in a non-judgmental fashion. Examples of this could be as simple as taking the teen out to dinner and talking, or as intense as taking them to the emergency room for evaluation and a possible inpatient stay. The important piece is the fact that the teen knows parents are approachable and non-judgmental when help is critically needed.

Any teen who has tried to commit suicide needs a physical checkup first to rule out life-threatening health problems. They should then get a mental health evaluation and treatment until they are stable. This often will take place at an inpatient facility to make sure of the child’s safety.

How is a teen treated for suicidal behavior?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment starts with a detailed evaluation of events in your teen’s life during the 2 to 3 days before the suicidal behaviors. Treatment may include:

  • Individual therapy

  • Family therapy. Parents play a vital role in treatment.

  • An extended hospital stay, if needed. This gives the child a supervised and safe environment.

Treatment doesn't end when your teen is discharged from the inpatient facility. Ongoing follow-up, will help ensure your teen recovers. Follow-up may include individual therapy, family therapy, and medicines. Emergency plans should be in place. Your teen needs to be an active participant in these plans. The more open communication can be about thoughts of suicide, the easier it can be for the teen to ask for help.

How can I help prevent my teen from attempting suicide?

Learning the warning signs of teen suicide can prevent an attempt. Keeping open communication with your teen and their friends gives you a chance to help when needed. Also take these steps:

  • Keep medicines and guns locked and away from children and teens. Don't let the child know the combination to a safe or where the key is located.

  • Get your teen help for any mental or substance abuse problems.

  • Listen to your teen. Take the initiative. Something as simple as saying: "You seem sad. Would you like to talk? Maybe I can help." These simple statements will let your teen know you care and you are aware that something is not right. Just listen and try not to criticize

  • Help your teen understand that asking for help is not showing weakness. It is the most brave thing a person can do.

  • Show interest. Find out what's happening in their life. Ask about social media activity, what they enjoy and dislike, what's important to them.

  • Stay connected. Take the time to enjoy each other in a non-stressful environment. A walk with you, even if much of it is in silence, can be comforting to your teen.

  • Become informed about teen suicide. Resources include the public library, local support groups, and the Internet.

  • Know the warning signs for depression:

    • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or loneliness

    • Declining school performance

    • Loss of interest in social and sports activities

    • Sleeping too little or too much

    • Changes in weight or appetite

    • Nervousness, agitation, or grouchiness

Teens can take these steps to help prevent suicide if they see warning signs in a friend:

  • Take their friend’s behavior and talk of suicide seriously.

  • Encourage their friend to seek expert help. Go with the friend, if needed.

  • Don't leave your friend alone, not even for a moment, until a responsible adult is with them.

  • Talk right away with an adult they trust about their friend.

  • Call 911 if your friend has suicidal thoughts, a suicide plan, and the immediate means to carry out the plan.

When should I call my teen’s healthcare provider?

Call your teen’s healthcare provider right away if your teen:

  • Feels extreme depression, fear, anxiety, or anger toward themself or others

  • Feels out of control

  • Hears voices that others don’t hear

  • Sees things that others don’t see

  • Can’t sleep or eat for 3 days in a row

  • Shows behavior that concerns friends, family, or teachers, and others express concern about this behavior and ask you to seek help

Call 911 if your teen has suicidal thoughts, a suicide plan, and the means to carry out the plan. Do not leave your teen alone, even for a moment.

Make sure your teen has emergency numbers in their phone. These would include parents, other trusted adults, the healthcare provider, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 Help your child understand that reaching out for help is the most brave and important thing to do if they are considering self-harm.

Key points about teen suicide

  • Suicide is when a person causes their own death on purpose.

  • Suicidal ideation is when a person has thoughts of wanting to die.

  • Suicidal behavior is when a person is focused on doing things that cause their own death.

  • Normal developmental changes combined with stressful life events may cause a teen to think about suicide.

  • Many of the warning signs of suicide are also symptoms of depression.

  • Any teen who expresses suicidal thoughts should not be left alone and should be evaluated right away.

  • After treatment starts, it will take a while for your teen to feel better. Make sure your teen knows this and support them while their symptoms improve.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2021
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