Youth suicide affects kids of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations and income levels. If a young person expresses suicidal thoughts or intentions, take it seriously and seek help right away.
Look for sudden changes in behavior and changes in schoolwork, social withdrawal or isolation, and themes of death or suicide in drawings, homework or writings.
The profile of a youth at risk for suicide is often presented as a severely depressed, drug dependent young person with a history of family abuse and impulsive, self destructive behavior. While this picture fits some, it is not true for all. In fact, most youths who die by suicide have a complex mix of risk and protective factors in their lives.
Mood disorders, eating and anxiety disorders and a co-occurring substance use disorder are common risk factors in youths with suicidal behavior. Having a close relative who died by suicide is also a risk factor. In addition, a recent loss or major disappointment increases a youth’s vulnerability to suicidal behavior. This may include the death of a friend or pet, a divorce of parents and conflicts with relatives or friends.
Studies have shown that racism and discrimination can undermine children’s inner resources and increase a youth’s vulnerability to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This is a significant contributor to disparities in youth suicide rates.
Teens and young people who are suicidal often exhibit one or more warning signs. These include: a sudden change in mood; giving away prized possessions; a rash of stomachaches, headaches or other physical symptoms that may not be related to their feelings; and the use or abuse of drugs or alcohol.
Some teenagers are at increased risk for suicide due to certain factors, such as having close friends or family members who have committed suicide or attempted it; experiencing major life changes like a divorce or job loss; being bullied; or facing other problems at school or with the law. Other risk factors include being a victim of sexual abuse; having a parent who has depression or a history of mental illness; and having access to weapons (guns, pills, etc.).
Youth suicide is preventable. Parents should watch for warning signs and talk to their child about them. They should also make sure that their child does not have access to weapons, especially guns, which are used in most youth suicides.
Teens who feel suicidal are more likely to seek help if they have caring adults in their lives, including parents or guardians, family members, teachers, coaches and extracurricular activity leaders, counselors at school, friends and other community members. These people can listen to a young person, offer advice or debriefing and encourage them to get medical care.
Getting a mental health evaluation and treatment is critical for youths who are at risk of suicide, as well as their families. A diagnosis of a depression or another mental illness that increases the risk for suicide is often part of this assessment, which may be followed by appropriate medication.
Any suicide attempt is taken very seriously and requires immediate expert care and supervision. The caregiving adults need to provide structure, rules, limits and monitoring while being empathetic, supportive and available. The youth who made the attempt also needs to be watched closely for signs of serious medical problems, particularly a possible life-threatening illness that could be caused by the method used.
Many of the risk factors for suicide can be prevented. Pediatric health clinicians, adults who work with youth in school and community settings, parents and other family members, and peers can learn the warning signs of suicide and take action to help keep youth safe.
Having strong family and peer support, cultural or religious beliefs that discourage suicide, and good access to effective medical and mental health care are all important in reducing the risk of suicide for teens. Prevention efforts also include gatekeeper training, general suicide education, screening programs, and crisis centers and hotlines.
It is important to recognize that even an unsuccessful attempt at suicide can be a serious warning sign. Regardless of how complete or dangerous a suicide plan seems, all suicidal intentions should be taken seriously and treated with great care. It is recommended that all lethal means, including guns, be kept locked away and out of the reach of a teen who is considering suicide.