Generally speaking, youth suicide is often related to a combination of background personal and family factors, and specific significant life events. These may include important interpersonal losses such as relationships or death of close friends.
Sadly, too many young people who are thinking about suicide do not reach out to someone for help. They also often resent those who try to intervene.
The demands of everyday life can stress teenagers to the point where their coping skills are overwhelmed. This can be precipitated by a relationship breakup, a death in the family or a major problem at school. A mental health professional can help a young person develop better coping skills to prevent suicide.
Other risk factors include a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and easy access to lethal means. Suicide rates vary by race and ethnicity; non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native youth have the highest suicide rate, followed by white youth. People living in rural areas have higher suicide rates as well. And young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) have higher suicide rates compared to their heterosexual peers.
A common perception is that people at suicide risk are unwilling to seek help or they will resent those who do try to intervene. But the truth is that most teens considering suicide want to be helped and feel relieved when someone does reach out.
Trauma is a significant risk factor for suicide, particularly in people with mental illness. Adolescents who have experienced trauma, whether it is serious injury or a sexual assault, are more likely to attempt suicide. They may use mood-altering substances to cope with the pain and distress caused by their traumas. They may also suffer from the effects of PTSD and have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships.
The ACE Study found that multiple types of major stressors increase the risk of suicide, and that those who have experienced several traumas are more at-risk for attempting it. This is especially true in individuals who have a combination of factors, such as having a history of mental health disorders or being a member of marginalized communities, like African American or LGBTQIA+ people, or working in high-stress professions such as first responders.
Level I and II trauma centers are encouraged to screen all adolescent patients for suicidal ideation and depression, as well as PTSD. The ACS COT and Pediatric Trauma Society recommend screening using the PHQ-9 in adolescents ages 15 and over, or the CES-DC in younger children.
Mental Health Issues
Many youth suicides occur in people with underlying mental health issues. These issues can include mood and emotion disturbances, such as depression or suicidal thoughts, and also disorders like bipolar or borderline personality disorder. Kids need to have their symptoms properly diagnosed and treated.
Research shows that the teen years can be a time of intense emotional, mental and physical change. During this time, they must face new, important decisions about their future in multiple domains, including school, relationships, jobs and living situations. Moreover, impulsive behavior can often be associated with these changes.
If you notice that a child or teen has been acting differently and isn’t speaking to family members, it could be time for them to see a professional for a mental health evaluation. Kids that have experienced significant family issues, such as divorce, separation from loved ones due to military service or incarceration, and abuse may be at an increased risk of suicide.
Many youth suicides happen after a conflict or a fight with parents or other close family members. In addition, a lack of family support can contribute to feelings of not being understood and devalued, leading teens to feel trapped in life. Domestic violence and parental substance use problems in families also have a strong impact on suicide among young people.
Adolescence is a time of transitions and changes in several domains, including educational, peer group and living situation. Transitioning to new roles, responsibilities and relationships is complicated for teens.
Be aware of warning signs, like sudden changes in mood or behavior. A teen who is more sad, withdrawn, angry or irritable than usual may be experiencing depression. Look for a change in sleep habits or eating patterns. If a teen becomes more talkative about suicidal thoughts, tell them that you will take them to a mental health professional. Keep this appointment, even if the teen says they’re feeling better and won’t go.