Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide

Asma Rehman, LPC

A stock photo of a woman laying on her back on the ground next to a phone and a bouquet of flowers. The picture is turned so it looks like she's upside down. No one ever wants to think about suicide. For many of us, losing a loved one to suicide is one of the worst things we can possibly imagine. Suicide rates have been going up in recent years, especially among teens. Living through a pandemic has been tough on everyone, but teens and younger folks have had it particularly hard. Between virtual or hybrid school, smaller social circles, and endless access to social media, it’s no wonder teens are overwhelmed. It’s hard enough to be a teen without the concerns of pandemic life on top of it, but today’s teens are having to balance both.

Some folks worry that if they bring up the topic, it will put the idea in someone’s head. Other people might fear that they don’t know what to say during a conversation about suicide and mental health. The most important thing is to have the conversation, even if you’re not sure what to say.

Suicide is something that’s incredibly stigmatized, for a lot of reasons. When someone loses their life to suicide, people may have a hard time talking about it. Grief can of course make suicide difficult to talk about, but the social stigma of suicide still has an influence. Losing someone to suicide is already a confusing and painful time, and no one wants to feel judged in their grief. Not talking about suicide doesn’t do anyone any favors though. Talking about suicide, its warning signs, ways to prevent it, and mental health in general is a helpful way to lessen the stigma.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth in the United States. Youth suicide rates were already rising before the pandemic, but some researchers have found that the pandemic has increased rates further:

“During February 21–March 20, 2021, suspected suicide attempt ED visits were 50.6% higher among girls aged 12–17 years than during the same period in 2019; among boys aged 12–17 years, suspected suicide attempt ED visits increased 3.7%.”

Through the last few years, teens and adolescents have had to deal with previously unimaginable stress. Teens have had fewer options for social support, which can lead to loneliness and depression. It’s also important to note that teenage brains are still developing. While adults may understand that things won’t always be this way, that’s something that’s harder for developing brains to comprehend. Teens can get trapped in all or nothing thinking, which can be dangerous when combined with suicidal ideation.

Not only do teens have to deal with all of this in real life, they have social media on top of it. Social media has changed the way A stock photo showing a dimly lit room with a spotlight on an empty chair.that all of us communicate, especially teens. Young folks are always ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, and they often find new corners of the internet before the adults in their lives catch on. This can make it hard for parents or caregivers to monitor teen’s online activity. Bullying in person and online is a real concern for lots of teens. There’s also an enormous amount of pressure to keep up with trends and informed via social media, so it’s hard for teens to take a break.

Warning Signs of Suicide

Many folks don’t know what to look out for and are surprised when a loved one dies by suicide. Statistics show that boys die of suicide at 3-4 times the rate of girls. Many researchers have noted that girls statistically attempt suicide. Everyone is different, but there are some warning signs of suicide to be aware of.

  • Changes in behavior
  • Talking about death or dying
  • Suicidal threats, like “I wish I was dead,” or “I hope I don’t wake up tomorrow,”
  • Talking about feeling hopeless
  • Increased substance use
  • Withdrawal or isolation
  • Major changes in mood
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Making final arrangements or plans

There are also certain risk factors that make suicide more likely. These risk factors for teen suicide include:

  • Mental health conditions, like depression, personality disorders, anxiety, or schizophrenia
  • Previous exposure to suicide
  • Long periods of stress, like when being bullied or harrassed
  • Stressful or painful life events (divorce,
  • Family history of suicide and/or previous suicide attempts
  • Abuse, neglect, or trauma
  • Easy access to lethal means
  • Lack of social support

A stock photo of a Black teen standing next to a light colored wall that reads "Tomorrow will bring good things. Stay alive to see it."Preventing Teen suicide

Preventing suicide means sometimes you’ll have to have tough conversations. It’s okay to be intimidated by a topic that’s as serious and scary as suicide. However, it’s really important for the teens in your life to know that you care enough about them to have the conversation, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable.

Here are more ways to prevent teen suicide: 

Ask directly: “Are you thinking of suicide?”

Asking them directly if they’re thinking of suicide is very important. Asking this question is not going to put the idea in their head. When you are honest and open with your teen, it will show them that you care and are concerned about them.

Remove access to lethal means

This is especially important. Remove anything in your teen’s environment that they could use to take their life. This means removing access to firearms (it’s best to fully remove them from the house), medications, or other weapons. If you know that your teen is considering suicide, it’s important to be nonjudgmental and supervise them as much as possible. This is about taking away opportunities for them to harm themselves until they are no longer suicidal and have received professional help.

Model talking about mental health

When mental health is stigmatized, it’s harder to ask for help. Show the teens in your life that it’s okay to talk about mental health with you. Talk about your own mental health or struggles you’ve had. Tell them that even when things are really bad, the feelings always pass. No feeling lasts forever. It’s also okay to show them things you do to take care of your mental health. These could be things like going to therapy, taking medications, getting good sleep, making time to move your body, and maintaining supportive relationships.

“Talk It Out” is a teen support group in Houston, where you’re able to spend time with friends and have a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings. They have talked about mental health, depression, body image, and so much more.

Show them that mistakes are a part of life

We all make mistakes. Since teens are still developing, things can seem a lot more black and white to them. Mistakes might seem like the end of the world. Embarrassment or shame might play a bigger role in decision making than it would for an adult. Remind your teen that making mistakes aren’t the end of the world.

Be empathetic

It’s important to be empathetic when talking to anyone who is experiencing mental distress. When talking to teens, this might mean reminding yourself of what it was like to be a teen yourself. Things that don’t bother you now might have really bothered you then, like a fight with a friend. Never be judgmental or accusatory when talking to a teen about their mental health. This will only discourage them from opening up in the future.

Suicide Hotline + Crisis Help:A stock photo of 3 white signs on a wire fence in front of greenery. The signs read "Don't Give Up" "You Are Not Alone" and "You Matter"

If you or someone close to you is considering harming themselves, please reach out for help. Things won’t always feel this way, and help is available.

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