The tragedy of a young person dying because of overwhelming hopelessness or frustration
is devastating to family, friends, and community. Parents, siblings, classmates,
coaches, and neighbors might be left wondering if they could have done something to
prevent that young person from turning to suicide.
Learning more about what might lead a teen to suicide may help prevent further
tragedies. Even though it's not always preventable, it's always a good idea to be
informed and take action to help a troubled teenager.
About Teen Suicide
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 greatly during adolescence.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, according
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after accidents and homicide.
It's also thought that at least 25 attempts are made for every completed teen suicide.
The risk of suicide increases dramatically when kids and teens have access to firearms at home,
and nearly 60% of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun. That's
why any gun in your home should be unloaded, locked, and kept out of the reach of
children and teens.
Overdose using over-the-counter, prescription, and non-prescription medicine is
also a very common method for both attempting and completing suicide. It's important
to monitor carefully all medications in your home. Also be aware that teens will "trade"
different prescription medications at school and carry them (or store them) in their
locker or backpack.
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, perhaps
because they tend to use more lethal methods, such as firearms, hanging, or jumping
Which Teens Are at Risk for Suicide?
It can be hard to remember how it felt to be a teen, caught in that gray area between
childhood and adulthood. Sure, it's a time of tremendous possibility, but it also
can be a period of stress and worry. There's pressure to fit in socially, to perform
academically, and to act responsibly.
Adolescence is also a time of sexual
identity and relationships and a need for independence that often conflicts with
the rules and expectations set by others.
Young people with mental health problems — such as anxiety, depression, bipolar
disorder, or insomnia — are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts. Teens
going through major life changes (parents' divorce, moving, a parent leaving home
due to military service or parental separation, financial changes) and those who
are victims of bullying are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts.
Factors that increase the risk of suicide among teens include:
feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often accompany depression
a previous suicide attempt
a family history of depression or suicide
emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers, and feelings
of social isolation
dealing with bisexuality or homosexuality in an unsupportive family or community
or hostile school environment
Suicide among teens often happens after a stressful life event, such as problems
at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or
a major family conflict.
Teens who are thinking about suicide might:
talk about suicide or death in general
give hints that they might not be around anymore
talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
pull away from friends or family
write songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss
start giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends
lose the desire to take part in favorite things or activities
have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
engage in risk-taking behaviors
lose interest in school or sports
What Can Parents Do?
Many teens who commit or attempt suicide have given some type of warning to loved
ones ahead of time. So it's important for parents to know the warning signs so teens
who might be suicidal can get the help they need.
Some adults feel that kids who say they are going to hurt or kill themselves are
"just doing it for attention." It's important to realize that if teens are ignored
when seeking attention, it may increase the chance of them harming themselves (or
Getting attention in the form of ER visits, doctor's appointments, and residential
treatment generally is not something teens want — unless they're seriously depressed
and thinking about suicide or at least wishing they were dead. It's important to see
warning signs as serious, not as "attention-seeking" to be ignored.
Watch and Listen
Keep a close eye on a teen who is depressed and withdrawn. Understanding depression
in teens is very important since it can look different from commonly held beliefs
about depression. For example, it may take the form of problems with friends, grades,
sleep, or being cranky and irritable rather than chronic sadness or crying.
It's important to try to keep the lines of communication open and express your
concern, support, and love. If your teen confides in you, show that you take those
concerns seriously. A fight with a friend might not seem like a big deal to you in
the larger scheme of things, but for a teen it can feel immense and consuming. It's
important not to minimize or discount what your teen is going through, as this can
increase his or her sense of hopelessness.
If your teen doesn't feel comfortable talking with you, suggest a more neutral
person, such as another relative, a clergy member, a coach, a school counselor, or
your child's doctor.
Some parents are reluctant to ask teens if they have been thinking about suicide
or hurting themselves. Some fear that by asking, they will plant the idea of suicide
in their teen's head.
It's always a good idea to ask, even though doing so can be difficult. Sometimes
it helps to explain why you're asking. For instance, you might say: "I've noticed
that you've been talking a lot about wanting to be dead. Have you been having thoughts
about trying to kill yourself?"
If you learn that your child is thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Your
doctor can refer you to a psychologist
or psychiatrist, or your local hospital's department of psychiatry can provide
a list of doctors in your area. Your local mental health association or county medical
society can also provide references. In an emergency, you can call (800) SUICIDE.
If your teen is in a crisis situation, your local emergency room can conduct a
comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and refer you to the appropriate resources. If
you're unsure about whether you should bring your child to the emergency room, contact
your doctor or call (800) SUICIDE for help.
If you've scheduled an appointment with a mental health professional, make sure
to keep the appointment, even if your teen says he or she is feeling better or doesn't
want to go. Suicidal thoughts do tend to come and go; however, it is important that
your teen get help developing the skills needed to decrease the likelihood that suicidal
thoughts and behaviors will emerge again if a crisis arises.
If your teen refuses to go to the appointment, discuss this with the mental health
professional — and consider attending the session and working with the clinician
to make sure your teen has access to the help needed. The clinician also might be
able to help you devise strategies so that your teen will want to get help.
Remember that ongoing conflicts between a parent and child can fuel the fire for
a teen who is feeling isolated, misunderstood, devalued, or suicidal. Get help to
air family problems and resolve them in a constructive way. Also let the mental health
professional know if there is a history of depression, substance abuse, family violence,
or other stresses at home, such as an ongoing environment of criticism.
Helping Teens Cope With Loss
What should you do if someone your teen knows, perhaps a family member, friend,
or a classmate, has attempted or committed suicide? First, acknowledge your child's
many emotions. Some teens say they feel guilty — especially those who felt they
could have interpreted their friend's actions and words better.
Others say they feel angry with the person who committed or attempted suicide for
having done something so selfish. Still others say they feel no strong emotions or
don't know how to express how they feel. Reassure your child that there is no right
or wrong way to feel, and that it's OK to talk about it when he or she feels ready.
When someone attempts suicide and survives, people might be afraid of or uncomfortable
talking with him or her about it. Tell your teen to resist this urge; this is a time
when a person absolutely needs to feel connected to others.
Many schools address a student's suicide by calling in special counselors to talk
with the students and help them cope. If your teen is dealing with a friend or classmate's
suicide, encourage him or her to make use of these resources or to talk to you or
another trusted adult.
If You've Lost a Child to Suicide
For parents, the death of a child is the most painful loss imaginable. For parents
who've lost a child to suicide, the pain and grief can be intensified. Although these
feelings may never completely go away, survivors of suicide can take steps to begin
the healing process:
Maintain contact with others. Suicide can be a very isolating experience for surviving
family members because friends often don't know what to say or how to help. Seek out
supportive people to talk with about your child and your feelings. If those around
you seem uncomfortable about reaching out, initiate the conversation and ask for their
Remember that your other family members are grieving, too, and that everyone expresses
grief in their own way. Your other children, in particular, may try to deal with their
pain alone so as not to burden you with additional worries. Be there for each other
through the tears, anger, and silences — and, if necessary, seek help and support
Expect that anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays may be difficult. Important
days and holidays often reawaken a sense of loss and anxiety. On those days, do what's
best for your emotional needs, whether that means surrounding yourself with family
and friends or planning a quiet day of reflection.
Understand that it's normal to feel guilty and to question how this could have
happened, but it's also important to realize that you might never get the answers
you seek. The healing that takes place over time comes from reaching a point of forgiveness
— for both your child and yourself.
Counseling and support groups can play a tremendous role in helping you to realize
you are not alone. Some bereaved family members become part of the suicide prevention
network that helps parents, teenagers, and schools learn how to help prevent future