Is your teen at risk of suicide? While no teen is immune, there are factors that can make some adolescents more vulnerable than others. Understand how to tell if your teen might be suicidal and where to turn for help and treatment.
What makes teens vulnerable to suicide?
Most teens who attempt or commit suicide have a mental health condition or substance abuse problem. As a result, they have trouble coping with the stress of being a teen, such as dealing with rejection, failure, breakups and family turmoil. They might also be unable to see that they can turn their lives around — and that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
What are the risk factors for teen suicide?
Factors that increase the risk of teen suicide include:
- Having a psychiatric disorder, such as depression
- A history of suicide attempts or a family history of suicidal behavior
- A family history of mood disorder
- A history of physical or sexual abuse
- Exposure to violence, such as being injured or threatened with a weapon
Other factors, when combined with the above, also can increase the risk of teen suicide, including:
- Access to means, such as firearms
- Loss or conflict with close friends or family members
- Use of alcohol or drugs
- Becoming pregnant
- Social isolation
- Exposure to suicide
What role do antidepressants play?
Some studies have shown a possible link between starting treatment with an antidepressant and an increased risk of suicide. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires manufacturers of all antidepressants to include a warning stating that antidepressants might increase suicide risk in children, adolescents and young adults.
However, the link between antidepressants and suicidal thinking isn't clear — and withholding appropriate treatment also increases the risk of suicide. To be safe, anyone who starts taking an antidepressant should be watched closely for signs of suicidal thinking.
What are the warning signs that a teen might be suicidal?
Warning signs of teen suicide might include:
- Talking about or hinting at suicide — for example, making statements such as "I'm going to kill myself," or "I won't be a problem for you much longer"
- Talking about or writing about death
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Feeling purposeless or hopeless
- Withdrawing from social contact
- Mood swings
- Changing normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns
- Acting recklessly or aggressively
- Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order when there is no other logical explanation for why this is being done
- Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated
- Unexplained cuts or burns caused by self-injury
What should I do if I suspect my teen is suicidal?
If you think your teen is in immediate danger, take him or her to the emergency room or call 911, your local emergency number or a suicide hot line number — such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).
If you suspect that your teen might be thinking about suicide, talk to him or her immediately. Don't be afraid to use the word suicide. Talking about suicide won't plant ideas in your teen's head. Ask your teen to talk about his or her feelings and listen carefully. Don't dismiss his or her problems or get angry. Instead, reassure your teen of your love. Remind your teen that he or she can work through whatever is going on — and that you're willing to help.
Also, be sure to seek medical help for your teen. Ask your teen's doctor to guide you. Teens who are feeling suicidal usually need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist experienced in diagnosing and treating children with mental health problems. The doctor will want to get an accurate picture of what's going on from a variety of sources, such as the teen, parents or guardians, other people close to the teen, school reports, and previous medical or psychiatric evaluations.
What can I do to prevent teen suicide?
You can take steps to help protect your teen. For example:
- Address depression or anxiety. Don't wait for your teen to come to you with his or her problems. If your teen is sad, anxious or appears to be struggling — ask what's wrong and offer your help.
- Pay attention. If your teen is thinking about suicide, he or she is likely displaying some warning signs. Listen to what your child is saying and watch how he or she is acting. Never shrug off threats of suicide as teen melodrama.
- Share your feelings. Make sure your teen realizes that everyone feels sad sometimes — including you. Try to get him or her to see that things will get better.
- Discourage isolation. Encourage your teen to spend time with friends and family — rather than alone. If he or she says no, however, don't push.
- Encourage physical activity. Even light physical activity can help reduce depression symptoms.
- Support the treatment plan. If your teen is undergoing treatment for suicidal behavior, remind him or her that it might take some time to feel better. Help your teen follow his or her doctor's recommendations. Also, encourage your teen to participate in fun, low-stress activities that will help him or her rebuild confidence.
- Safely store firearms, alcohol and medications. Access to means can increase the risk of teen suicide.
Remember, teen suicide can be prevented. If you're worried about your teen, talk to him or her and seek help right away.