Preventing Youth Suicide

Adolescence is a time of change and uncertainty. It can also be a time of great stress and emotional distress.

Some teens attempt suicide as a way of escape. Others find relief by abusing drugs or alcohol.

The warning signs of suicide in adolescents include sudden changes in eating or sleeping habits, frequent complaints of physical symptoms related to emotions (headaches, stomach aches), withdrawing from family and friends and becoming preoccupied with thoughts of death.

Risk Factors

Many different factors increase the risk of suicide. They can be at the individual, family or community level. Many of these risk factors are associated with psychiatric disorders such as mood, anxiety and eating disorders. These can also be exacerbated by stress and by alcohol or drug abuse. Mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorder, and a history of suicidal attempts or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) also elevate risk.

Changes in personal relationships can be a major source of stress and are often associated with suicide. This includes family conflicts, separation from parents due to death or divorce, loss of friends and increased mobility. Conflicts with significant figures in a youth’s life such as boy/girl friends, boyfriend/girl friend, or religious leader can also elevate risk.

Characteristics that protect against suicide include a sense of connection to others, especially family and close friends, involvement in organized religion and private spiritual practices. A general feeling of adequacy and well-being is also protective.


There is a lot that can be done to prevent youth suicide. It is important that people who care for kids and teens know the warning signs of suicidal behavior. It is also important that they have access to mental health treatment for any psychiatric illness they may be experiencing.

Many of the risk factors for youth suicide can be reduced by making sure that a youth gets proper medical and mental health treatment. Some risk factors are not so much under the control of a person and can only be changed by society, such as the availability of weapons or other means for suicide.

People who work with children and teens such as teachers, coaches and extracurricular activity leaders, parents, police officers, doctors and nurses can help to prevent youth suicide by recognizing the warning signs and taking action. In an emergency, remove guns and other lethal items from the home, call 911 and take the youth to a hospital or crisis center for evaluation and treatment.


While anyone may experience suicidal thoughts, the teen years are an especially risky time for suicide. The suicide rate peaked in the ’80s and ’90s, but has been rising again since 2006. A teen boy is 3-4 times more likely to commit suicide than a girl.

Anyone who is considering suicide should never be left alone and should always be assessed by a professional. If you know a young person who is thinking about suicide, talk to them and listen carefully. Make sure they have no access to lethal weapons, such as guns and pills.

Warning signs include giving away belongings, talk of death or suicide, sleeping little or too much, acting anxious or irritable and having a low appetite. A history of depression, previous suicide attempts and a family history of mental health problems may increase the risk. Other risk factors include legal or disciplinary issues at school, substance abuse and struggling with sexual orientation in a culture that is not accepting of that identity.


Medications, psychotherapy and family therapy are among the treatments available to help prevent suicide. A young person suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts must be properly diagnosed and treated with a comprehensive mental health plan.

For teens, one of the most effective treatment options is to find someone to talk to — a school counselor or social worker, physician or a therapist affiliated with a local mental health association or medical society. It is important that the teen finds someone who is willing to listen and to reassure him or her that depression and suicidal feelings are treatable.

Interventions that target protective factors within the adolescent’s social network have also shown promise, including programs to educate gatekeepers (e.g., teachers and parents) on how to recognize signs of suicidal behavior, peer support programs and crisis centers or hotlines. The “Yob Nominate Your Support Team” program, for example, has been shown to reduce suicide attempts in teens by 40% compared with TAU (Pineda & Dadds, 2013). Another promising approach is to help the adolescent to identify supportive adults who are willing to talk about his or her feelings, and then provide these individuals with training so that they can be helpful in a crisis.