Teens At Risk for Suicide
During adolescence, teens often experience intense emotions. New friends, different schools, first love – all allowing for wonderful emotions to be experienced and enjoyed. But strong emotions may also be in play when teens experience stressful events in their lives. Anxiety about friendships or school is common. Teens may experience short bouts of sadness related to breakups, bad grades, or parents going through a divorce. Sometimes distress is not passing and can reach alarming levels. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the troubling behavior is just part of growing up or something more. Knowing about warning signs that teens could be at risk for suicide is a step towards keeping them safe.
Recognize Warning Signs
It’s important to recognize that mental health conditions don’t only affect adults. If you observe behaviors or thoughts interfering with daily life or notice problems lasting weeks (or months), contact a health care professional.
No list is complete as everyone is different. It’s not essential to know whether something is a diagnosable problem. It is essential that you reach out for help if you have any concerns that your children might be at risk for suicide. Below are some warning signs to look out for.
- Talking About or “Joking” About Dying or Suicide. Do they refer to dying (even in apparent jest), disappearing, methods of killing oneself (jumping off a building or bridge, shooting, suffocation, etc.)?
- Self-Esteem Issues. Do they say they feel ashamed, worthless or not worthy of being around others?
- Self-Loathing. Do they express self-hatred or loathing? Experience intense guilt? Make statements that the world will be better off without them— that they are a burden to others?
- Self-Harm. Do they cut or burn their skin on purpose? Do they engage in any other form of self-mutilation?
- Putting Affairs in Order. Are they giving any of their prized possessions away? Have they lost interest in things they cared about in the past? Are they saying goodbye to friends or family members? Making a will?
- Lack of Hope. Do they express a lack of hope for the future? Do they say nothing will change or that there are no solutions? Do they talk about feeling trapped?
- Searching for, Writing or Drawing Death. Do they search for violent images or videos online? Spend time drawing pictures in which death is depicted? Write poetry or prose in which death plays a role?
- Taking Unnecessary Risks. Are they exhibiting self-destructive behaviors? Taking risks for no apparent or rational reason? Could these risks lead to death?
- Changes in Mood. Are they increasingly irritable, or expressing rapidly changing moods? Or is there a sudden and intense calm about them that doesn’t make sense to you?
- Substance Use. Are they showing increasing or changing patterns in substance use or abuse?
- Changes in Thinking. Do they suddenly display disorganized thinking or behavior? Are they increasingly suspicious of others?
Other Important Risk Factors
There are some additional risk factors that could contribute to or increase the possibility of teens considering suicide. These include (but are not limited to) adolescents who have been abused or neglected, those who are depressed, highly anxious, have impulsive behavior/poor self-control and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Also, teens who are loners or dealing with serious trouble (in school or at home), those who have experienced the suicide of a family member or a friend, teens with a parental history of substance abuse or violence, and those from marginalized populations.
If you’re worried or have a feeling something is wrong, you should take it seriously. Never assume that your children are only seeking attention. If they need attention, give it. Consult with a mental health professional, health care provider or contact one of the crisis services listed here immediately if you are concerned about their safety.
The National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741-741
You can also find additional resources and information here:
Suicide is preventable. And mental health issues are treatable. Check in with your teen. Seek out professionals who can help.
We want to thank Dr. Victor Schwartz at the JED Foundation for reviewing this article and offering helpful feedback.