Our Teens’ Growing Suicide Problem
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that, in 2017, there were over 47,000 suicides in the United States. Over 10% of those suicides were teenagers. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens. Accidental death is the leading cause.
What Drives Teens to Suicide?
Remember that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not an automatic reaction to severe life stressors. Some teens experiencing stress who feel intense anger, anxiety, sadness, loss, and even hopelessness may occasionally feel that they would be better off dead. But this is not the normal reaction of most teens.
Depression and Other Mental Illnesses
Research shows that nearly all teens who committed suicide had a mental illness, most commonly depression. Depression’s great emotional pain and loss of hope blind teens and young adults from seeing another way out of the pain aside from suicide. Other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, have also been shown as causes.
Those teens who suffered a traumatic experience, including childhood sexual abuse, rape and physical abuse, are at a higher risk for suicide, even if many years have passed since the trauma. A diagnosis of PTSD, or multiple incidents of trauma, has been shown to raise the risk even further.
Substance Abuse and Impulsivity
Abusing alcohol and drugs also has a significant impact on teens who are suicidal. Substance abuse causes these teens to act more impulsively upon urges than they would have while sober. Substance abuse can have an indirect effect as well, such as causing the loss of a job or relationship, or exacerbating a psychological disorder.
Loss or Fear of Loss
When a teen is facing a painful loss or even afraid that such a loss might occur, committing suicide may seem like the only option. Such a loss may be the ending of a close friendship or romantic relationship, losing a job, being bullied, socially targeted in a negative way, or failing academically.
When teens feel they no longer have hope and are unable to do anything about it, suicide seems like a viable option. While it may be apparent to an outsider that things will get better, to a hopeless teen this reassurance sounds like wishful thinking that has no basis in reality, and thus is discounted as irrelevant.
Social isolation can happen for a variety of reasons. It could be the loss of friends, physical or mental illness, moving to a new location, or even social anxiety. Sometimes low self-esteem can lead to loneliness, which could ultimately result in suicide.
A Cry for Help
At times a teen will attempt suicide not because of a desire to die, but because the pain is overwhelming, and he/she doesn’t know where to go to for help. Such an attempted suicide isn’t the teen crying for attention, but crying for help. But these cries can be fatal if the teen doesn’t appreciate the lethality of her chosen suicide method.
Warning Signs that Suicide may be near:
Obsessively talking about suicide or death
Feelings of intense sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness
Becoming disinterested in physical appearance or daily activities
Desire to be alone/withdrawal from friends and family
Giving away meaningful possessions
Risky behavior such as substance abuse or reckless driving
Persistent lack of energy
Difficulty thinking clearly and concentration problems/academic failure
Suffered a recent traumatic event/exposure to other teen suicides
Unable to extricate from a hostile social or school environment
A significant change in sleeping or eating habits
Running away/violent or rebellious behavior
Saying goodbye to people in a way that suggests they won’t be seen again
Trying to access weapons, other objects or pills that could be the means
Expressing feelings of self-loathing, guilt, or shame
How Can You Prevent Suicide?
(While these tips are directed towards the parent of the teen at risk of suicide, the therapist or a bystander can implement these tips as well.)
Tip 1: Speak Up If You’re Worried
If your teen presents any of the above warning signs, you may question whether or not you should say anything. What if you drew the wrong conclusion, and this got your teen angry at you? Feeling uncomfortable in such a situation is only natural, but remember that your teen’s life might be at stake, so it is undoubtedly better to err on the side of caution.
Be natural. The words are often unimportant. What is critical is to let your teen know that you care. Your body language and voice will convey that loud and clear.
Listen. Allow your teen to vent his/her anger and unload those feelings of despair. Having the conversation is essential irrespective of how negative it becomes.
Be sympathetic, accepting, calm, patient, and, most of all, nonjudgmental. This is isn’t about what is right and what is wrong. It is about saving your teen’s life.
Offer hope. Continuously reassure your teen that suicidal feelings are temporary, and help is always available. Let your teen know how important he/she is to you.
Argue with your suicidal teen. Don’t say things like: “You have such a wonderful life ahead of you,” or “C’mon, nothing could be that bad.”
Act shocked, or give a lecture on how precious life is, or that suicide is like murder.
Promise confidentiality. Don’t be sworn to secrecy. You may need to speak to a mental health professional to ensure safety, and you don’t want to lose your child’s trust.
Give advice, offer solutions to problems, or ask your teen to justify feelings of wanting to die. It’s not about the problem; it’s about the pain emanating from the problem.
Tip 2: Respond Quickly and Effectively in a Crisis
If your teen tells you that suicide is being considered, you must promptly evaluate the immediate danger. Those teens at highest risk have a specific suicide PLAN, the MEANS to implement the plan, a TIME SET for carrying it out, and the INTENTION to do it.
Ask your teen the following questions to assess the immediate suicide risk:
Do you have a plan to commit suicide? (PLAN)
Do you have what’s necessary to carry out your plan (pills, weapon)? (MEANS)
Did you decide when you are planning to do it? (TIME SET)
Do you intend to commit suicide? (INTENTION)
If suicide is imminent, call a crisis center, dial 911, or go to an emergency room.
Under no circumstances should you ever leave a suicidal person alone.
Tip 3: Offer Help and Support
If you have determined that your teen is suicidal, the optimal way to help is by offering your empathetic listening ear. Let your child know that he or she is not alone and that you care.
- Remove any suicide means, such as weapons, knives, razors, or pills. Lock up medications and dispense them only as your teen needs them.
- Get professional help. Do whatever you can to get your teen the professional help he/she needs. Call your local suicide hotline for advice and referrals.
- Be proactive. Often, teens considering suicide have given up any hope of being helped. You may need to take the initiative in getting the needed assistance