The reasons behind a teen’s suicide or attempted suicide can be complex. Although suicide is relatively rare among children, the rate of suicides and suicide attempts increases tremendously during adolescence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, surpassed only by accidents and homicide. (www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/suicide/)
Suicide rates differ between boys and girls. Girls think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys, and tend to attempt suicide by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves. Yet boys die by suicide about four times as often girls, because they tend to use more lethal methods.
A teen with a good support system of friends, family, religious affiliations, peer groups, or extracurricular activities has an outlet to deal with everyday frustrations. But many teens don’t believe they have an outlet, and feel disconnected and isolated from family and friends. These teens are at increased risk for suicide.
Factors that increase the risk of suicide among teens include:
- A psychological disorder, especially depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol and drug use (in fact, approximately 95% of people who die by suicide have a psychological disorder at the time of death);
- Feelings of distress, irritability, or agitation;
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often accompany depression (a teen, for example, who experiences repeated failures at school, who is overwhelmed by violence at home, or who is isolated from peers is likely to experience such feelings);
- A previous suicide attempt;
- Family history. This can include a family history of suicide, mental disorders, and/or substance (drug or alcohol) abuse;
- Identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual;
- Lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers, and feelings of social isolation;
- Substance abuse/alcohol abuse, which can create feelings of dependency, illness and depression;
- Feeling out of control and powerless due to drug or alcohol addiction can be a major risk factor in attempted teen suicide;
- Evidence also supports the idea that suicides are sometimes imitated. In particular, exposure to the death of a peer by suicide or by another violent means may increase the likelihood of subsequent suicides among young people in a community.
Adolescence can be a period of great confusion and anxiety. There is pressure to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly. There is also an awakening of sexual feelings, a growing self-identity, and a need for autonomy that often conflicts with the rules and expectations set by others.
Warning signs of a teen who may be thinking about suicide can include: talking about suicide or death in general, talking about “going away”, talking about feeling hopeless or feeling shame, pulling away from friends or family, losing the desire to take part in favorite things or activities, having trouble concentrating or thinking clearly, experiencing changes in eating or sleeping habits, or engaging in self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or driving too fast, for example). These signs do not always mean that a teenager is thinking of suicide, but they should alert others to talk with the teenager about what is on his or her mind.
Parents should not be afraid to ask their teenager if he or she is thinking about suicide. Talking with them about suicide does not make teenagers do it. Showing concern and asking questions calmly is the first step when dealing with a suicidal adolescent. Asking teenagers how they feel and if they have thoughts of ending their life keeps open lines of communication and sets the stage for professional intervention. If a teen has a specific plan to act on a suicidal impulse, the risk is greater and immediate intervention is needed.
Whenever an adolescent has suicidal thoughts or makes a suicide attempt, professional help should be sought immediately to protect the adolescent from hurting themselves. Once the initial suicidal crisis is over, treatment with a mental health professional should continue. It often takes a number of sessions to help adolescents figure out what is happening in their lives that has led to suicidal behavior and to help them learn ways to manage stressors.