Psychiatric Illnesses and Suicide in Youth

Teens are at high risk for suicide because their judgment and decision-making abilities aren’t fully developed. They also have limited coping skills.

Take any talk of suicide seriously and encourage the person to seek expert help. Look for warning signs: sudden changes in friends, appearance and behavior; writing about or drawing pictures of death; a lack of interest in normal activities.


Depression can cause a person to feel helpless, hopeless and overwhelmed. It can also make a person want to kill themselves. The good news is that depression can be treated, and when treatment works, the suicide risk is reduced.

Symptoms of depression include feeling sad all the time, excessive worry or fear and trouble sleeping. The person may withdraw from friends and family or act irritable, anxious or tired. Depression can cause a child to talk about wanting to kill himself or others, or to plan suicide. Warning signs to watch for include giving away things they value or changing sleep or eating patterns.

Children with parents who have alcohol or drug abuse problems are at higher risk for depression and suicidal thinking. This includes kids who are raised in homes where there is domestic violence.


Although many people think of alcoholism in terms of the stereotypical dishevelled drunk huddled under a bridge with a paper bag, it’s an illness that affects all ages, races and economic groups. It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of this illness in youth because it can lead to suicide if not properly treated.

Alcoholism is linked to suicidal behavior by a number of mechanisms. One theory is that alcoholics fail to up-regulate ventral prefrontal 5-HT1A receptors, resulting in decreased serotonergic innervation and increasing the risk of suicide [160].

Another mechanism involves family transmission of alcoholism, which can make it difficult for survivors to accept the loss of a loved one. Studies have shown that spouses and children of those who commit suicide suffer from feelings of sorrow, guilt, anger and abandonment, as compared to those who don’t.


During the teen years, strong worries or anxieties that are difficult to control can increase a teen’s risk of suicide. These emotions can lead to impulsive behavior and poor problem-solving skills, which can put a teen at risk for self-injury or suicide.

The teen years are a time of major changes, including body changes and emotional difficulties. This stress can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and intense sadness. Often, these feelings are ignored or dismissed by adults.

Research has shown that a high percentage of adolescents who attempt suicide have anxiety disorders and depressive disorders. These disorders are linked to childhood adversities and stress during the teen years. In addition, adolescent depression is associated with a high rate of suicide attempts among racial and ethnic minority groups.

Other Psychiatric Illnesses

A psychiatric illness is a mental health disorder that can affect emotions, thinking and behavior. Some disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is characterized by thoughts that are not in touch with reality, including hallucinations and delusions. Other psychiatric illnesses include borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and schizoaffective disorder. These conditions can cause distress, interfere with daily functioning and have a negative impact on the individual’s quality of life and relationships. The onset of some disorders is genetic while others are linked to specific events and experiences, such as abuse, neglect or bullying. The long-term course and outcome of a disorder can be affected by the person’s environment, such as economic factors and social inequalities. Symptoms can be reduced with psychological treatment and medication, when necessary.

Suicide Threats

Many psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anorexia nervosa, have their onset during adolescence. These conditions can also increase the risk of suicide and require treatment.

A person who is making threats should be taken seriously and not trivialised. Often such a person has genuine suicidal intent. The therapist should assess whether the threat is complete or dangerous and help the individual develop personal safety plans, including checking-in points with significant adults and building in a future to live for.

Attempts to suicide are highly correlated with exposure to suicide. In a clinical sample, both the suicide of a schoolmate and personally knowing someone who has died by suicide predicted a high likelihood of attempts 2 years later. This is an important finding given the increased vulnerability of adolescent populations to suicide.