Content Warning: This article discusses suicide but we believe difficult conversations around how best to discuss mental health in respectful and non-stigmatizing ways is important. If you are in a life threatening situation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline +1 (800) 273-8255, call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or use these resources to get immediate help.
Teen suicide is a pressing issue our youth face today. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for adolescents in the United States.
Research shows us that after a decade of decreased rates through 2007, teenage suicide rates are once again going up. The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) found that between 2000 – 2017, the United States saw a 47% uptick in suicides of adolescents ages 15 – 24.
To say it’s something we need to pay attention to is an understatement. The issue is urgent. Understanding symptoms of suicidal teenager behavior is one way we can fight for our teens. Here we’re discussing warning signs and symptoms you should know, how you can tell if a teen or young person might be having suicidal thoughts, and how teen therapy can help.
Potential Causes of Suicidal Ideation in Teens
Part of knowing what signs of teenage suicidal thoughts look like is understanding some of the potential causes of teens having suicidal ideation. Mental health conditions are a huge contributor to suicide. Some research estimates that up to 90% of people who take their own life have a mental health condition.
Most of the time when we experience major stress in our life, thoughts of death or recurring thoughts of suicide are not a natural reaction. When or if this happens, it’s more likely that a mental health condition (such as depression, bipolar disorder, or another condition) is present.
In these cases, it’s extremely important that intervention happens as soon as possible. This could be in the form of professional treatment (therapy), medication, or both.
Warning Signs & Symptoms to Look Out For
Teen suicide warning signs are easier to spot when you know what to look for. The biggest thing to watch for would be your teenager either engaging in acts of self-harm or just talking about suicide in general. If your child is talking about suicide, or if you suspect or see any suicidal behaviors and self-harm, you should reach out for help immediately.
Any of the following might result in an elevated risk of teen suicide:
- A family history of suicide
- Mental health conditions like anxiety or depression
- Psychiatric diagnoses
- Exposure to suicide
- Family history of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Aggressive behaviors
- Exhibiting difficulty knowing how to deal with sexual orientation
- Extreme loss
- Having serious physical illness
- Lack of social support
- Increased social isolation
- Exhibiting poor coping skills
- Engaging in acts of self-harm
- Having access to materials that could allow for self-harm — knives, guns etc.
- Living with family disruptions — divorce, legal problems, financial problems
- Major traumatic life events
“While some of the warning signs and symptoms overlap with other concerns and conditions in a teenager’s life, it is important to not minimize these signs and symptoms as simply part of being a teenager. Your support and willingness to discuss what is going on can make all the difference.”
There are other teen suicide warning signs as well, including:
- Being extremely sad
- Showing signs of hopelessness
- Being preoccupied with death — exploring recurring themes of death in written school assignments or artwork
- Loss of interest and activities and things that they once cared about
- Substance abuse
- Withdrawing from friends and family or other social settings
- Quitting sports or avoiding social activities
- Experiencing sleep disturbance — not sleeping
- Engaging in risky behavior
- Giving away possessions
- Having an incredible lack of energy
- Increased absence from school, sports practices, and games, or work
- Decline in school performance
- Not being able to think clearly
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Changes in appetite
- Increased irritability
How to Know if Your Teen is Having Suicidal Thoughts
Knowing the symptoms of suicidal teenager behavior is key in being able to pick up on whether your teen or young adult might be struggling with suicidal thoughts. One of the most important things you can do is talk to your teenager.
Often, parents are afraid if they bring up the idea of youth suicide, it might plant a seed in their child’s mind. This fear results in them avoiding the topic entirely, but studies show that asking about suicide does not increase the likelihood a teenager (or anyone else) would start thinking about it.
Teenagers who attempt or who actually die by suicide generally display common warning signs in how they behave and things they say. The more warning signs you see, the higher your child’s suicide risk might be. If you’re thinking you should ask, you absolutely should.
Using straightforward and clear-cut language is the best way to approach your teen. Let them know you’re worried. Ask them point-blank: “Have you been thinking about killing yourself or wanting to die?”
“While it might seem frightening to talk about, being direct and non judgmental is key to talking with your teen about your concerns. Creating a safe space for these conversations allows you and your teen to begin to discuss their thoughts and feelings.”
If your child talks to you about having suicidal thoughts, you should take them seriously. Your next (and immediate) step should be to have your teenager evaluated by a therapist or other mental health professional.
How to Prevent Teen Suicide
Wondering how to help a teenager with suicidal thoughts? Knowing the common warning signs of teenage suicidal thoughts is one of the best ways you can prevent a teen from taking their own life. While it’s common for teenagers to want to avoid talking about their suicidal thoughts out of fear of how people in their life might react, watching for teen suicide warning signs means you have a better chance for early intervention that can help your teenager.
The following actionable steps can help with suicide prevenetion:
- Recognize the warning signs
- Express your concern to your teen
- Listen to your teen and try to understand
- Remove any means that allow for self harm in your home
- Seek Professional Help
Remember that your best chance of preventing teen suicide is by talking to your child.
If you’re seeing signs that lead you to believe your teenager might be thinking about suicide, talking to them might actually help them open up to you. Asking very direct questions may help them feel like you’re approaching them out of concern rather than from a place of judgment. Non-judgmental discussions can help your teen feel safe enough to share how they feel and what thoughts they might be having.
“Paying attention to the warning signs, asking your teen direct questions and seeking professional help all make a difference in providing your teen the support they need. You and your teen do not have to struggle with this alone, there is help available, do not hesitate to reach out.”
We live in a world where suicide among teens is prevalent. It’s not something we can afford to ignore. A 2017 youth survey the CDC conducted shows that:
- 7% of high school students have attempted suicide
- 14% reported making a suicide plan
- 17% said they’d seriously consider suicide
- 32% said they’ve had prolonged feelings of hopelessness or sadness
Getting professional help for a teenager you know who’s suicidal is the best thing you can do for them. If you suspect your teen is struggling, talk to them, and get them the help they need today.
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