What is teen suicide?
Suicide is when a teen causes his or her own death on purpose. Before attempting to take his or her own life, a teen may have thoughts of wanting to die. This is called suicidal ideation. He or she may also have suicidal behavior. That’s when a teen is focused on doing things that cause his or her 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 attempt suicide than boys.
- Guns are used in more than half of 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 influence a teen’s problem-solving and decision-making. He or she 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 or moving to a new town
- Changes in friendships
- 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
- Undesirable life events 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
- Gun in the home
- 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 usual activities
- Withdrawal from friends and family members
- Acting-out behaviors and running away
- Alcohol and drug use
- Neglecting one’s 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 he or she 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 possessions or throws away important belongings
- Becomes suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
- May express weird thoughts
- Writes 1 or more suicide notes
These signs may look like other health problems. Make sure your teen sees his or her 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 be evaluated right away. Talk with your teen’s healthcare provider.
Any teen who has tried to commit suicide needs a physical checkup first to rule out life-threatening health problems. He or she should then get a mental health evaluation and treatment until he or she is 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.
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 his or her friends gives you an opportunity to help when needed. Also take these steps:
- Keep medicines and guns away from children and teens.
- Get your teen help for any mental or substance abuse problems.
- Support your teen. Listen, try not to offer undue criticism, and stay connected.
- Become informed about teen suicide. Resources include the public library, local support group, 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 irritability
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.
- Talk with an adult they trust about their friend.
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 him or herself 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.
Key points about teen suicide
- Suicide is when a teen causes his or her own death on purpose.
- Suicidal ideation is when a teen has thoughts of wanting to die.
- Suicidal behavior is when a teen is focused on doing things that cause his or her 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 be evaluated right away.
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.
Upcoming Webinar: Preparing Children to Return to School
Join psychiatrist and former public school teacher Hal Kronsberg, M.D., August 10, 2021 at 7 p.m. EDT, as he discusses the signs of anxiety that children may be feeling about returning to school after a tumultuous year of virtual learning. The webinar is presented as part of A Woman's Journey Conversations That Matter webinar series.