It's one of those truths we'd rather not think about, let alone deal with in any remotely personal way. Suicide is hard enough; teen suicide is just about unimaginable, and most of us like to think it could never happen to someone we love.
It does happen, though, thousands of times every year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the 15-to-24 age group (behind car accidents and homicide), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Besides ending a life that had barely begun, it offers the additional horror of possible preventability. Those left behind are often wracked with guilt -- what could we have done differently? Did we ignore the signs?
Most teen suicides are, in hindsight, somewhat predictable -- if you know what to look for. That predictability is a good thing. It means that knowledge can go a fair distance toward prevention. Here, some facts about teen suicide that every parent should know, beginning with the underlying causes: Among the teen population, who is most at risk?
It's a rare person that doesn't struggle with confusion, stress and self-doubt during the transition from child to adult. In this uniquely (and often dramatically) angst-filled period, a "small" failure, embarrassment or disappointment can seem so huge as to be completely overwhelming. To the teenage brain, suicide can seem like the only way out of a difficult situation.
But most teens do not commit suicide, so there must be something more. Factors that, in conjunction with teen angst and poor judgment, can increase the chances of suicidal thoughts and behaviors include:
- Personal or family history of suicide, bipolar disorder and/or depression
- Recent suicide of a friend, family member or acquaintance
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Recent major life change, like parents' divorce or remarrying or moving to a new town (and school)
- Homosexuality in an unsupportive environment
- Poor peer or family relationships (especially abuse in the home)
- Access to firearms
That last one -- access to firearms -- is big. Most successful teen suicides are accomplished with guns. Easy access to a gun dramatically increases the risk.
Risk factors, of course, are guidelines. The presence of one or more doesn't indicate a problem. Suicide warning signs, however, can …
Signs of Trouble
How can you tell if you should sound the alarm? It's not easy. Many of the signs of suicidal ideation -- things like withdrawal, rebellion, risky behaviors -- are also signs of being a fairly normal teenager. But that doesn't mean you should ignore them. And paired with some warnings signs that are not so typical, you can get a picture of someone who might need help.
Be on guard if you notice:
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Social isolation or withdrawal from family
- Decline in school performance
- Change in sleeping or eating habits
- Neglect of personal appearance
- Lack of interest in once-enjoyed activities
- Expression of "strange" or death-focused thoughts
- Threats of suicide (take them seriously, always)
- Frequent stomach aches, exhaustion, headaches or other possible physical manifestations of mental distress
- Rebellious, risky or impulsive behavior
- Ignoring positive feedback
- Giving away possessions
If you do notice one or more of these signs, and you think your teen might need help, the next step is to get involved …
There's no doubt about it: Talking to a teenager, especially one showing signs of trouble, can be scary for a parent. But there's no way around it. If you suspect your child may be contemplating suicide, your first move is the most obvious one: Ask about it.
Put it in context by explaining why you're asking. Mention the behaviors that are worrying you. Don't badger. Simply open the door so your teen knows you're there to listen. Extending your hand in that way can go a long way toward reducing your child's sense of isolation, even if he or she doesn't take you up on it immediately.
Additional ways you can take action include:
- Talk to your child's teacher, coach, close friends or religious advisor
- Double-check to make sure firearms and prescription (or other) drugs are unavailable to your teen in the home
- Pay attention -- watch and listen to your teen so you can pick up on indicators of immediate danger
- Schedule an appointment with a mental health professional (social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist)
If your teen refuses to see a therapist, suggest family therapy instead. If you do make an appointment but then your child starts to feel better, don't cancel it. Suicidal feelings can come and go.
If your teen is actively planning to or has attempted suicide, seek immediate help at a medical facility. The emergency room will be able to help, regardless of whether there is a physical injury present.
Finally, one of the most important things to understand: Suicidal thoughts or behaviors are treatable. There are several options …
Whether your teen is thinking about suicide or has already attempted it, there are treatments available. The first -- and absolutely necessary -- treatment is getting under the care of a mental health professional. That typically means "therapy": a regular appointment with a psychologist, psychiatrist or clinical social worker (or sometimes a qualified member of the clergy). The goal here is to get to the root of the problem through talking and to learn effective and healthy coping mechanisms so that suicide is no longer perceived as the only way out of a problem.
If your teen is on the brink of trying or has already attempted suicide (a mental health professional will be able to help you determine the former), in-patient hospitalization may be necessary until your teen is no longer in danger.
Your teen's treatment may also include medication, if it is deemed appropriate by both you and the doctor.
No one wants to find out their child has a problem, but the alternative to being aware and getting involved is even scarier. The best way to prevent a teen suicide is to watch, listen, ask and seek help. You not only don't have to do it alone -- you shouldn't.
Call (800) SUICIDE for advice or information if you think your teen may be in trouble.
For more information on teen suicide, mental illness and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- "About Teen Suicide." Kids Health. (Jan. 9, 2011)http://aacap.org/cs/forFamilies
- "Facts for Families: Teen Suicide." American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (Jan. 9, 2011)http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=Teen+Suicide§ion=Facts+for+Families
- "Teen Suicide." The Ohio State University Medical Center. (Jan. 9, 2011)http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/mental_health/mental_health_about/children/suicide/Pages/index.aspx