Understanding Teen Suicide: Tips for Prevention

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A guide for parents to help prevent teen suicide.

Psychology Today – June 13, 2013

by Dr. Earl Turner

Suicide related behaviors (e.g., suicidal ideation, self-harm, suicide attempt) are becoming more frequent among adolescents and is a major public health issue. Many have recently heard about Paris Jackson allegedly being hospitalized for a suicide attempt. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of deaths among adolescents (NIMH, 2013). According to data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC, 2012), suicide results in an estimated $34.6 billion in combined medical and work loss costs. While symptoms of depression are one risk factor, even among those who exhibit depression or depressive symptoms, it has been noted that clinicians face difficulties predicting self-harm or suicide attempt (Hetrick, et al., 2011). Data from a national sample of youth have reported that 2.4% of students indicated that they had made a suicide attempt that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or an overdose that required medical attention (CDC, 2012). In regards to gender differences, statistics show that males tend to have higher rates of suicide than females. Additionally, the NIMH notes that rates of suicide vary by ethnic/racial group, with highest rates among non-Hispanic Whites and American Indian.

What are the warning signs?

  • Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself
  • Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means
  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge
  • Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities – seemingly without thinking
  • Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out
  • Increasing alcohol or drug use
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and society
  • Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
  • Experiencing dramatic mood changes
  • Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life

What factors may increase risk?

Although we can’t pinpoint specific characteristics associated with suicide, a combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of suicide. These risk factors may include:

  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of child maltreatment
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
  • History of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Cultural and religious beliefs (e.g., belief that suicide is noble resolution of a personal dilemma)
  • Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods

Tips for preventing suicide attempts:

If your child feels comfortable to talk with you about their thoughts of harming themselves, the following suggestions may be helpful.

Take it Seriously

  • 50% to 75% of all people who attempt suicide tell someone about their intention. If someone you know shows the warning signs above, the time to act is now.

Encourage Professional Help

  • Actively encourage the person to see a physician or mental health professional immediately.
  • People considering suicide often believe they cannot be helped. If you can, assist them to identify a professional and schedule an appointment. If they will let you, go to the appointment with them.

Ask Questions

  • Begin by telling the suicidal person you are concerned about them.
  • Tell them specifically what they have said or done that makes you feel concerned about suicide.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask whether the person is considering suicide, and whether they have a particular plan or method in mind. These questions will not push them toward suicide if they were not considering it.
  • Ask if they are seeing a clinician or are taking medication so the treating person can be contacted.
  • Do not try to argue someone out of suicide. Instead, let them know that you care, that they are not alone and that they can get help. Avoid pleading and preaching to them with statements such as, “You have so much to live for,” or “Your suicide will hurt your family.”

Take Action

  • If the person is threatening, talking about, or making specific plans for suicide, this is a crisis requiring immediate attention. Do not leave the person alone.
  • Remove any firearms, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used for suicide from the area.
  • Take the person to a walk-in clinic at a psychiatric hospital or a hospital emergency room.
  • If these options are not available, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for assistance.

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