Author: Sandi Lerman; Community Educator
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness month – a time when stories and resources are shared to help end stigma and help people understand how to help someone at risk. While the topic of mental health crisis and suicide is sometimes difficult to talk about, it’s essential for us to know the warning signs and what to do when someone we know may be at risk.
Teens are one of the highest at-risk groups for suicide. For this reason, parents, teachers, and caregivers all need to be equipped to support teens in crisis. Teen suicide is a growing problem and is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults age 15 – 24, second only to accidents. From the years, 2007-2017, the number of suicides for young people age 10 – 24 increased at an alarming pace from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people to 10.6.
Teens can become overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, depression, or hopelessness, and because of mental health stigma and shame, they can feel like they are alone and don’t know where to turn for help. Thoughts of suicide can last for a long time or may result in an impulsive suicide attempt. A caring adult equipped with knowledge and compassion can make a world of difference, and perhaps even save a life.
Teenagers and children of any age with underlying mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are at higher risk for suicide. Mental health conditions are common in teens and young adults, with over 50% of all mental illnesses developing by age 14 and 75% by age 24 (NAMI).
- family conflicts, problems, or sudden changes
- any major loss or rejection
- bullying and feeling unsafe at home or school
- previous suicide attempt
- family history of suicide attempts
- exposure to violence
- access to firearms or medications
Warning signs can be verbal, behavioral, or situational.
A child or teen who says something like “I just want to die” or “I’m going to kill myself” should always be taken seriously, even when they appear to be joking. Teens may say these things to see how parents or others will react, and it’s important to gently ask for more information about why they may be feeling suicidal. Teens may also drop verbal hints, such as saying “nobody cares about me anyway” or “you won’t have to worry about me any more.”
Some behavioral warning signs include the following:
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Angry or irritable mood
- Any sudden change of behavior
- Giving away prized possessions
- Withdrawing from family members more than usual
- Impulsive, risky behavior or substance abuse
Sometimes teens are in challenging situations that make them feel helpless and hopeless. Some of these situations can include:
- Being punished at home or school or fear of punishment
- Bad grades, failing a class, or expulsion
- Bullying, discrimination, racism, harassment, feeling unsafe at school
- Family problems of any kind – parent conflict, financial hardship, unwanted moves
- Losing a friend or the breakup of any important relationship
- Changing schools, teachers, counselors, coaches or others who were important to the teen
What to do if you suspect your teen is depressed or suicidal
If you are worried that a teen you care about might be having a mental health crisis, it’s important to open the lines of communication and have a conversation with the teen right away.
Be direct, and ask the teen how they are feeling and what problems they might be having. Keep in mind that asking about suicide directly does not increase the risk of suicide, it actually helps the teen feel that you are aware of what is going on and can reduce their feelings of anxiety about opening up.
Some questions you can ask your teen:
1. “I noticed you’ve been (explain your concern/what you’ve noticed)…. Have you been feeling sad or depressed lately?”
2. “I’d love to know how your feeling and what’s going on right now. I’m not angry with you, I just want to listen.”
3. “Have you been thinking about suicide? (if the answer is yes) Do you have a plan about how to do this?”
Again, do not be afraid to ask the direct question about suicide. Knowing that you care can save a life, and even if the teen is not actively suicidal, asking the question shows that you are a safe person to talk to about this important topic.
Where can I get help for my teen?
If your teen is in immediate crisis, you can take them to the nearest emergency room for an evaluation and a referral to the appropriate services needed. If your child is depressed but is not considering suicide right now, it’s still a good idea to talk to your child’s doctor to get a referral to a qualified mental health professional for evaluation and follow up treatment as needed.
The challenges of 2020 have made mental health and suicide awareness even more important, as so many people are feeling the effects of enormous stress and uncertainty. We need to do all we can to support our teens through difficult times to bring them hope and keep them safe.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing a crisis, need referrals, or just want someone to listen, you can reach out to the following crisis lines for help: