Many teens who commit suicide have a history of suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts. They have more difficulty coping and may be struggling in family relationships. They are more likely to live in rural areas where firearms are easily available.
The stronger the connections kids have with their families, friends and community, the less likely they are to harm themselves. They also need to have restricted access to lethal weapons like guns, pills or kitchen utensils.
Adolescence is a time of significant cognitive, emotional and social change. Changing family circumstances, peer relationships, extracurricular activities, living arrangements and job-related stressors can be associated with a greater risk for depression and suicide.
Talking about death or suicide, avoiding friends and family, being sad and withdrawn, sleeping too much or too little, changes in appetite, and suicidal thoughts are warning signs that should be taken seriously. Teens and young adults may also be at higher risk for suicide if they have a history of depression or have tried to kill themselves before.
Many youth suicides occur in the context of relationship conflicts, such as arguments with parents, boy/girlfriends or other peers. Conflicts can lead teens to feel misunderstood, devalued and trapped. They can believe that their problems are hopeless and that death will bring relief. This is especially true if the conflict is long-standing or unresolved. Mental health professionals can offer support. This is an important role for pediatric health clinicians and other adults who work with youth.
Kids who have access to good medical and mental health care are less likely to think about suicide. They also need to feel that there are people who listen and understand their feelings. When kids feel abandoned by their parents or that they don’t understand them, it can be an indicator of a suicidal mindset. Other warning signs include talk of wanting to kill themselves, looking for ways to kill themselves (like searching online or obtaining weapons), and a lack of interest in activities that used to be fun.
If a teen talks about having suicidal thoughts, you should make an appointment with a mental health professional as soon as possible. Even if the teen won’t go to the appointment, you should tell the clinician so that they can keep an eye on the situation. Thoughts of suicide often come and go, so this way they’ll be on hand to intervene if the thoughts become more severe or dangerous.
Young people who hurt themselves are often trying to express overwhelming feelings of pain, anger and hopelessness. Some do this because they believe it will relieve them of these emotions. Others say they are punishing themselves for something that has happened in their lives. They may feel overwhelmed by school and family responsibilities or be unable to make relationships work.
For some teens, major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa increase their risk of suicide. This is because the adolescent brain does not develop properly, so symptoms of these disorders are often present during this time. Some delusional beliefs associated with these conditions also contribute to the risk, such as feeling (as part of their delusional schizophrenia) that they are being directed to kill themselves.
Other factors that can contribute to suicide risks include social isolation, being in a relationship that is not working and access to weapons and drugs. Children who have tried to kill themselves in the past are at greater risk of future suicide attempts.
The adolescent years are a time of great cognitive, social and emotional change. They can be a period of intense stress, confusion, fear, hopelessness and feelings of being overmatched by external pressures. These feelings can lead to suicide.
Youth who attempt suicide should always be taken seriously and get a full mental health evaluation and treatment. They may need to be admitted to an inpatient program for a period of time, depending on how severe the symptoms are and their general health.
Youth who try to kill themselves often display warning signs such as erratic behavior, withdrawing from friends and family or making comments about killing themselves on social media. Parents and school personnel should always be alert for these signs and keep an open door to make themselves available as a resource. They should also take any threat or talk of suicide seriously and never leave a suicidal person alone. It is also important to educate young people about suicide and the risk of taking their own lives so they can better recognize the signs of someone who is thinking about it.