Suicide tends to be a taboo subject, and can be scary to talk about. Suicide in teens can be an even more difficult topic to broach. It is, however, important if you have teens of your own or work with adolescents to be aware of the signs of suicidality in teenagers and know what you can do if you notice these signs.

As we all know, adolescence is a very difficult time in life. Not only is your body going through massive changes, but your brain is still developing. Teenagers also have the added pressure of navigating their social system and are beginning to form their own identity. All of this pressure can lead some teens to develop depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, including suicidality. In fact, suicide in adolescents has been increasing since the early 2000’s, while mental health in teens has been decreasing in general. Some risk factors of suicidality in teens include:

  • One or more diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorders
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Undesirable life events or recent losses (for example, death or parental divorce)
  • Family history of mental or substance abuse disorder
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family violence, including physical, sexual, or verbal or emotional abuse
  • Prior suicide attempt
  • Firearm in the home
  • Incarceration
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, including family, peers, in the news, or in fiction stories

What signs should you be looking for that a teenager is suicidal?

You’re not inside a teenager’s mind, but there are some behavioral signs you can watch out for to see if your teen may be having some suicidal ideation:

  • Changes in eating and sleep habits
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Withdrawal from friends and family members
  • Acting out behaviors and running away
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Neglect of personal appearance
  • Unnecessary risk-taking
  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Increased physical complaints frequently associated with emotional distress, such as stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue
  • Loss of interest in school or schoolwork
  • Feelings of boredom
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of wanting to die
  • Lack of response to praise
  • Plans or effort toward plans to commit suicide, including the following:
  • Verbalizes “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 possessions; throws away important belongings
  • Becomes suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
  • May express bizarre thoughts
  • Writes one or more suicide notes

Responding to suicidal behaviors in adolescents is important, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. You also want to make sure that you keep calm and utilize non-judgmental language.  Again, it may be uncomfortable but simply allowing a teenager the space to discuss their feelings of suicidality can be very beneficial. Also, having discussions about mental health in general can make a teen feel more comfortable about opening up and sharing their own experience with their personal mental health.

Parents, caretakers, doctors, and teacher can also make sure that protective factors are set in place to help reduce the risk of suicidality in the adolescents they interact with. Protective factors that have been shown to help reduce suicidality in teens includes a circle of friends who are positive and supportive, personal goals and purpose (i.e. participating in art, sports, extracurricular activities, volunteering, or a part-time job), positive family connections, religious or spiritual connections, and success at school.  Parents and caretakers who are uncertain about what they can do can also reach out to their primary care doctor or pediatrician, as a professional may have some more resources for teen mental health and wellness.

By Marion R. White, MHC-LP