When a teen commits suicide, everyone is affected. Family
members, friends, teammates, neighbors, and sometimes even those
who didn't know the teen well might experience feelings of
grief, confusion, guilt - and the sense that if only they had done
something differently, the suicide could have been prevented.
So it's important to understand the forces that can lead
teens to suicide and to know how to help.
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
tremendously 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), surpassed only by accidents
The risk of suicide increases dramatically when kids and teens
have access to
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.
Ammunition should be stored and locked apart from the gun, and the
keys for both should be kept in a different area from where you
store your household keys. Always keep the keys to any firearms out
of the reach of children and adolescents.
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 from heights.
Which Kids 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 can also be a period of great
confusion and anxiety. There's pressure to fit in socially, to
perform academically, and to act responsibly. There's the
awakening of sexual feelings, a growing self-identity, and a need
for autonomy that often conflicts with the rules and expectations
set by others.
A teen with an adequate support network of friends, family,
religious affiliations, peer groups, or extracurricular activities
may have an outlet to deal with everyday frustrations. But many
teens don't believe they have that, and feel disconnected and
isolated from family and friends. These teens are at increased risk
Factors that increase the risk of suicide among teens
- a psychological disorder, especially
, bipolar disorder, and
(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
- a previous suicide attempt
- a family history of depression or suicide (depressive
illnesses may have a genetic component, so some teens may be
predisposed to suffer major depression)
- physical or sexual abuse
- lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or
peers, and feelings of social isolation
- dealing with homosexuality in an unsupportive family or
community or hostile school environment
Suicide among teens often occurs following a stressful life
event, such as a perceived failure at school, a breakup with a
boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a
major family conflict.
A teen who is thinking about suicide might:
- talk about suicide or death in general
- talk about "going away"
- talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
- pull away from friends or family
- lose the desire to take part in favorite things or
- have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
- self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or
driving too fast, for example)
What Can Parents Do?
Most 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 that kids who might
be suicidal can get the help they need.
Watch and Listen
Keep a close eye on a teen who seems depressed and withdrawn.
Poor grades, for example, may signal that your teen is withdrawing
It's important 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
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
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
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
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. Suicidal thoughts do tend to come
and go; however, it is important that your teen get help developing
the skills necessary 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 might also be able to help you
devise strategies to help your teen want to get help.
Remember that any 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 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. All of these reactions are
appropriate; emphasize to your teen that there is no right or wrong
way to feel.
When someone attempts suicide and survives, people may be afraid
of or uncomfortable about 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 among the most painful
losses imaginable. For parents who've lost a child to suicide,
the pain and grief may 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 help.
- 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 together.
- 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.
Matthew K. Nock, PhD
Date reviewed: June 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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