The typical profile of a youth suicide victim is of an isolated, depressed, drug dependent, impulsive young person who has no family support system. However, kids who feel loved and supported are less likely to consider self-destructive actions and have better problem-solving skills.
Parents should watch out for warning signs such as changes in sleeping or eating patterns. They should also make sure that their children have limited access to guns, alcohol and drugs.
Signs and Symptoms
Children and adolescents with depression or suicidal thoughts can show warning signs. These may include talk of suicide or wanting to die, becoming sad or withdrawn, avoiding friends and family, acting angry and agitated, doing risky things, complaining about painful or persistent stomachaches or headaches that are not real, sleeping or eating more or less than usual, giving away prized possessions or writing notes or poems about death. Children who have been traumatized by violence, life-threatening events or traumatic losses are at particular risk for suicidal behavior.
Parents should always take talk of suicide seriously and not assume that it is just teenage drama. Children who are at risk for suicide should be seen by a health care professional immediately. This person should be a mental health specialist who has experience with youth suicide. A referral to a local crisis response service may also be helpful. Some young people are reluctant to admit that they are thinking of suicide or need help and will hide their thoughts.
Several factors contribute to youth suicide. For example, major life events like marriage dissolution, the death of a loved one or a significant relationship breakup are frequently associated with suicide in youths. So are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and access to lethal means such as firearms and pills.
Mental disorders also increase suicide risk. For instance, people with anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia are at greater risk of suicide than those who don’t have such psychiatric problems. Often, these disorders develop during adolescence, and they can be complicated by delusions or hallucinations.
Kids who are bullied—either by peers or their family members—have higher suicide rates than those who don’t get bullied. And bullying can lead to isolation, making it harder for them to find support. Kids who have a history of impulsive and aggressive behavior are at greater risk as well. And teens who have tried to kill themselves in the past are at even higher risk.
Whether a youth’s suicidal threat is “genuine” or not, it should be taken seriously and professionally dealt with. Often, such threats are cry for help – “I am not coping”.
Treatments can include peer support programs which foster friendships among teens at risk of suicide and crisis centers and hotlines with trained volunteers to answer phones. A large number of these programs have been shown in randomized controlled studies to reduce the rate of suicide attempts in teens.
Family issues can also affect a youth’s suicide risk. Specifically, the death of a loved one, separation from a spouse through divorce or remarriage and a sense of alienation from the world are all factors that can raise a youth’s risk for suicide. Kids who have experienced abuse, violence and trauma can also be at a greater risk for suicide.
The good news is that youth suicide prevention is possible. Youth often give warning signs before taking their life, and it is important for parents, teachers and coaches to be able to recognize these signs and know how to respond. These signs include expressing suicidal thoughts, creating a plan or taking steps to prepare for suicide. These signs may also be a sign of an underlying psychiatric illness, such as depression or drug-induced psychosis.
Prevention efforts are focused on many areas, including educating students and educators about the risk of suicide among their peers, providing them with tools to recognize warning signs and to seek help, and restricting access to lethal means. A CDC resource offers information and resources for schools and educators. Another website offers information and a tool for teens on how to prevent suicide in their peer group. There are also many programs designed to support the friends and family members of those who commit suicide.