Preventing Suicide in Teens

Reports of suicide among famous people, in our communities, and in our schools have become all too common.  Suicide rates have increased by close to 25% over the last 15 years, and suicide was the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2015.  What can we do to prevent suicide in teenagers?

First, it is important to recognize factors that can contribute to and/or protect teens from suicide.  Risk factors for suicide include: mental illness, substance abuse, recent loss or traumatic event, lack of social support, impulsive decision-making, access to lethal means, hostile social or school environment, and exposure to other suicides.  Protective factors for suicide include: access to mental health services, social connections, effective problem-solving and coping skills, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose or meaning in life.  Supporting teens in reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors can be invaluable in preventing suicide.  

Second, suicide prevention involves recognizing the warning signs and taking them seriously.  Common warning signs include:  change in personality, change in behavior (including sleep or eating patterns), loss of hope for the future, and talking about dying.

Third, some things that parents and friends can do/say to help prevent suicide in teenagers include: 

  • Don’t let depression or anxiety snowball. Everybody has a bad day from time to time, but don’t ignore persistent problems such as sadness, irritability, boredom, isolation, or acting out behaviors. Rather than wait for your teen to come to you, express your concern and offer to help.
  • Ask. If you are at all concerned that your teen is thinking about suicide, ask directly. There is no evidence that this sort of conversation increases risk.
  • Never write off suicidal threats as simply “wanting attention” or “being dramatic.” Regardless of whether your teen actually wants to hurt herself, these statements are a signal that she is in a great deal of distress. Take them seriously.
  • Seek professional help right away.
  • Without minimizing the pain your teen is experiencing, be reassuring that things will get better and that you will be there for support.
  • Encourage your teen not to isolate from family and friends (but don’t push too hard). 
  • Encourage exercise (but don’t push too hard). Exercise can serve as a distraction from problems, can improve sleep, and affects brain chemistry in ways that improve mood.
  • Remind your teen that treatment takes time, and not to feel discouraged if he doesn’t feel better right away.
  • If you have guns in your home, lock them away or remove them until the crisis has passed. 
  • If you are a teenager yourself who is concerned about a friend, tell a parent, a counselor, or another adult who can take action. It’s better to risk your friend being upset with you than being in danger.

Lastly, ensure easy access to suicide prevention resources for yourself, your teen, and close others:

  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
  • Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • CrisisLink Hotline and Textline.  Call 703-527-4077 or Text CONNECT to 85511

Kelly Theis, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist