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Preventing Teenage Suicide

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers (after motor vehicle accidents and homicides) and has increased threefold in the last generation. Depression is the major risk factor for suicidal behavior in adolescents, as it is with adults. Research reveals that children with mood disorders such as depression are five times more likely to commit suicide than children not affected by such problems. Other risk factors for suicide include:

  • substance abuse (Drugs and alcohol can exacerbate depression and increase the likelihood of impulsive behavior.)
  • previous suicide attempts (A person who tries once, may try again.)
  • coexisting psychiatric conditions such as eating disorders
  • significant losses and separations
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • conflict among family members
  • family history of suicide
  • poor social relationships
  • the presence of a firearm in the home
  • stressful life events

Fortunately, clear markers often exist to indicate that a teenager is at risk for suicide. They include:

Verbal hints of impending suicide

  • I won’t be a burden to you much longer.
  • Nothing matters. It’s no use.
  • I feel so alone.
  • I wish I were dead.
  • That’s the last straw.
  • I can’t take it anymore.
  • Nobody cares about me.

Changes in behavior

  • accident proneness
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • violence towards self, others and animals
  • dangerous or risky behavior
  • loss of appetite
  • sudden alienation from family and friends
  • worsening performance in school
  • dramatic highs and lows
  • lack of sleep or excessive sleeping
  • giving away valued possessions
  • letters, notes, poems with suicidal content

Changes in life events

  • death of a family member or friend, especially by suicide
  • separation or divorce
  • loss of an important relationship, including a pet
  • public humiliation or failure
  • serious physical illness
  • getting in trouble with the law

The Role of Caring Adults in the Prevention of Teen Suicide

The presence of one or more caring adults in the life of a suicidal adolescent—a person whom the child can turn to for advice—can decrease the likelihood of suicide from 50 to 75 percent. Here is what a concerned adult can do when this advice is sought.

Listen:

  • Stay calm. Don’t be outwardly shocked, as this may put distance between you and the child.
  • Don’t assume the teen is just trying to get attention. Don’t try to argue him out of feeling suicidal.
  • Show concern. Encourage the child to talk to you or some other trusted person.
  • Allow for the full expression of feelings. Don’t give advice or feel obligated to find simple solutions.

Share feelings:

  • Accept the child’s feelings, letting him know that he or she is not alone.
  • Discuss how you have felt when you were sad or depressed.
  • Be nonjudgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong.
  • Don’t challenge the teen to “go ahead and do it.” It is possible that he or she might take your advice.
  • Show interest and support.

Be honest:

  • Talk openly about suicide.
  • If the child’s words or actions scare you, tell him or her. If you’re worried or don’t know what to do, say so. Simply being a witness to the child’s pain can promote healing.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available. Reassure the teen that you know how to locate assistance.

Get help:

  • Don’t be sworn to secrecy.
  • Professional help is crucial. Assistance may be found from a local mental health clinic, school counselor, suicide prevention center, or family physician.
  • Take action. Remove means of self-harm such as guns or pills. Call the American Suicide Survival Line: (888) SUICIDE—(888) 784-2433.
  • Stay close to the person until he or she is under professional care.

Ultimately, preventing teen suicide means treating teen depression, since the vast majority of teens who attempt suicide are depressed. Fortunately professional help exists through a variety of mental health practitioners—child and adolescent psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family counselors. Most teens respond quite well to a combination of individual therapy, family therapy, and medication. In more serious cases, day treatment programs, home-based therapy, therapeutic foster care and/or residential treatment are recommended.

As a caring adult, your unconditional love and emotional support will make a big impact. It is important that a teen considering suicide feels loved and cared for. Show your teenager that it is possible to overcome life's challenges, and assure him or her that you are willing to help out.