Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth between 10 and 19 years of age. However, suicide is preventable. Teens who are contemplating suicide frequently give warning signs of their distress. Parents, teachers, and friends are in a key position to pick up on these signs and get help. Most important is to never take these warning signs lightly or promise to keep them secret. When all adults and students in the school community are committed to making suicide prevention a priority—and are empowered to take the correct actions—we can help youth before they engage in behavior with irreversible consequences.
Which teens are at risk for suicide?
Certain characteristics are associated with increased suicide risk. These include:
- A family history of suicide
- Mental health problems — such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or insomnia
- Teens going through major life changes (parents’ divorce, moving, a parent leaving home due to military service or parental separation, financial changes)
- Situational crises (i.e., traumatic death of a loved one, physical or sexual abuse, family violence, etc.)
- A chronic medical condition, including chronic pain
- Family stress/dysfunction
- Substance abuse
- Teens and those who are victims of bullying
- Environmental risks, including presence of a firearm in the home
What are the warning signs of suicide?
Suicide among teens often occurs following a stressful life event, such as problems at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a major family conflict.
Teens who are thinking about suicide might:
- Talk about feelings of hopelessness or guilt and other symptoms of depression
- Talk about suicide or death in general
- Give hints that they might not be around anymore
- Talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
- Pull away from friends or family
- Write songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss
- Start giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends
- Lose the desire to take part in favorite things or activities
- Have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- Experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Engage in risk-taking behaviors
- Lose interest in school or sports
How are teens committing suicide?
The risk of suicide increases dramatically when kids and teens have access to firearms at home, and nearly 60% of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun. That’s why any gun in your home should be unloaded, locked, and kept out of the reach of children and teens.
Overdose using over-the-counter, prescription, and non-prescription medicine is also a very common method for both attempting and completing suicide. It’s important to monitor carefully all medications in your home. Also be aware that teens will “trade” different prescription medications at school and carry them (or store them) in their locker or backpack.
Suicide rates differ between boys and girls. Girls think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys, and tend to attempt suicide by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves. Yet boys die by suicide about four times as often girls, perhaps because they tend to use more lethal methods, such as firearms, hanging, or jumping from heights.
What to do if I feel like my child is contemplating suicide?
Teens who feel suicidal are not likely to seek help directly; however, parents, school personnel, and peers can recognize the warning signs and take immediate action to keep the youth safe. When a youth gives signs that they may be considering suicide, the following actions should be taken:
- Remain calm
- Ask the youth directly if he or she/he is thinking about suicide
- Focus on your concern for their wellbeing and avoid being accusatory
- Reassure them that there is help and they will not feel like this forever
- Do not judge
- Provide constant supervision. Do not leave the youth alone.
- Remove means for self-harm
If you learn that your teen is thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Your teen’s school nurse or counselor can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist, or your local hospital’s department of psychiatry can provide a list of doctors in your area. You can also call the Samaritans Statewide crisis help line at 1-877-870-4673 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
What can parents and others do to prevent suicide?
The presence of resiliency factors (also called developmental assets) can lessen the potential of risk factors to lead to suicidal ideation and behaviors. Once a child or adolescent is considered at risk, schools, families, and friends should work to build these factors in and around the youth. These include:
- Family support and cohesion, including good communication
- Peer support and close social networks
- School and community connectedness
- Cultural or religious beliefs that discourage suicide and promote healthy living
- Adaptive coping and problem-solving skills, including conflict-resolution
- General life satisfaction, good self-esteem, sense of purpose
- Easy access to effective medical and mental health resources
For statistics on suicide in Massachusetts and other local information and resources, visit the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Suicide website
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the Samaritans Statewide crisis help line at 1-877-870-4673 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).