There has been a lot of recent controversy regarding the new Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” which traces the decision of a fictional teen to end her life, and the aftermath of grief and devastation that follows. While the show has highlighted the concerns around teen suicide, the truth is that the rate of teen suicide has been steadily growing for several decades. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 (CDC, 2017) and suicides can even occur as young as age 10. Perhaps an even more frightening statistic is that for every completed suicide, there are approximately 25 times as many attempts, which equates to over one million teens attempting to end their lives each year (APA, 2017). In Texas alone, more than twice as many people die by suicide than by homicide. It’s crucial that communities talk directly about this growing problem, and provide resources and assistance to the teens and families that need it.
Who Is At Risk?
At least 90% of the teens who died by suicide reflected one or more of the risk factors.
- Adolescents with mental health problems (which may be diagnosed or undiagnosed), such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, are at a much higher risk for experiencing suicidal thoughts.
- Teens who are victims of bullying at home, at school or on social media are also at a higher risk.
- Those who may be experiencing a major life change, such as parents’ divorce, the death of a friend or family, moving, financial stresses or relationship breakup.
- Use of alcohol and/or drugs.
- Those who feel distress, agitation, hopelessness, worthlessness and a low self-esteem.
- Teens who have had a previous suicide attempt or who have a family history of suicide.
- Those who have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
- Teens who are dealing with bisexuality or homosexuality, especially in an unsupportive family or school environment.
- Those who have a poor network of support with parents and friends and who may be socially withdrawn.
What Are the Warning Signs?
Teens who are considering suicide may demonstrate the following warning signs:
- Hint that they won’t be around anymore.
- Talk about death in general or write about death in poems or songs.
- State feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
- Withdraw from family, friends, usual activities or hobbies.
- Have trouble concentrating on school or even routine tasks.
- Experience changes in eating or sleeping habits.
- Show a decrease in grades or lose interest in school.
- Engage in risk-taking behaviors.
What Can Loved Ones Do?
Parents, caregivers and friends can all be aware of the risk factors and warning signs for teen suicide. It may feel uncomfortable to approach a teen with concerns, but this may very well be the intervention that saves a life.
It can be difficult sometimes for a parent to remember the vulnerable and emotional time that many teens experience. It’s a time period when many adolescents are feeling stress and pressure to fit in socially, achieve good grades in school and somehow navigate those difficult transitional years between childhood and adulthood. There is a desire for independence, while still needing guidance, and there can be conflicting thoughts about personal identity, relationships and what the future holds. Parents often think their child is “seeking attention” if they indicate they may hurt themselves, however ignoring teens at this time may intensify their desire to end their life. The warning signs must be viewed by parents and friends as serious and a signal for help.
Watch adolescents who appear depressed or withdrawn closely, and try to keep the lines of communication open. Parents should express their concern, support and love, without minimizing the feelings and problems of the teenager. Although the concerns that an adolescent feels about his or her life may seem insignificant and temporary to an adult, they are very real and consuming to a young person.
Parents are often hesitant to ask their teen if they may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, but it’s important to talk about it no matter how difficult. For example, a parent may say, “I’ve been concerned that you have been talking a lot about death. Have you been having thoughts about trying to kill yourself?” This conversation, when it’s supportive and loving, may very well be the door the teen needs to open up, talk about feelings and get help. Schools may also have information that parents can use.
Finally, seek professional help. It’s crucial that teens who are experiencing the risk factors or warning signs of suicide receive professional help for their feelings. It can be difficult to know if the warning signs mean the thoughts are there, or if there is an emergent situation that needs to be addressed immediately. Parents or friends can call national suicide hotlines, such as 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK to receive guidance on how to intervene.
While sometimes making an appointment with a mental health provider for a few days or weeks later may be acceptable, at other times it may be important to bring your teen to an emergency room for an urgent evaluation and intervention by professionals. Don’t underestimate the urgency of the situation – it may be life-saving to act quickly.
For more information about suicide statistics and how to take action, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
- Kristen Hullum, MSN, RN, Trauma Injury Prevention Coordinator at St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center