The Teen Suicide Epidemic
Suicide is one of the leading cause of death in young people, accounting for 8.5% of total deaths in teens and the most common mental health emergency. Alarmingly, the suicide rate for white teens between the ages of 10 and 17 went up 70% between 2006 and 2016. There’s no doubt that teen suicide is a modern and frightening epidemic. Teens are an especially vulnerable group because of the fact that their brains aren’t fully developed. They tend to make risky, impulsive decisions and are just beginning to figure out how to cope with life’s many stressors.
The Houston Chronicle recently featured an article about the spike in suicidal thoughts in Houston teens and in the school I work in as a Wellness Counselor with Communities In Schools, where I see this trend first-hand. I have begun to recognize that it takes a team of support to ensure the safety of our teens. This team includes friends, coaches, school personnel, therapists, and most importantly parents. Although it’s scary to learn about teen suicide, knowledge is the best way to prevent it.
Teens who die by suicide usually think about suicide prior to acting. A 2011 study found that 1 out of every 6 or 7 teens seriously considered attempting suicide in one year, 1 in 8 had a plan, and 1 in 14 have attempted at least once. In addition, 1 out of every 50 high school students seeks medical care due to a suicide attempt injury.
Suicidal thoughts are common in adolescents and do not always lead to suicide attempts. Although mild and infrequent thoughts rarely lead to suicide, they should still be taken seriously. Some parents may hear from someone in their teen’s life, possibly a friend, trusted adult, or school personnel, that their teen has expressed thoughts about dying. These parents may feel scared, confused, and have questions about what to do or how to talk to their teen about these thoughts. I’m hopeful that this guide will educate parents on the risks, warning signs, and what to do if they are worried about their teen.
Every person and every teen is unique, so this list is not exhaustive. If you recognize your child’s behaviors in one of the risk factors, it does not mean that your child is suicidal. However, this list identifies what puts teens at an increased risk for suicide attempts.
- Previous suicide attempt
- Suicidal thoughts
- Psychiatric diagnosis including: Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Eating Disorders, Conduct Disorder
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Recent (within 1 year) discharge from a psychiatric hospital
- Feelings of hopelessness
- History of violent behavior
- Learning disorders and low academic achievement
- Family history of suicide
- Family history of psychiatric disorders
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- Being a victim or perpetrator of bullying
- Being LGBTQ
- Access to lethal means (guns, medicines, etc.)
- Exposure to suicide (Friend, Classmate, or in the Media)
- Social isolation
- Interpersonal stress (recent break-up, fight with a family member, abuse, etc.)
The following are behaviors that are commonly seen in teens prior to a suicide attempt.
- Loss of Appetite
- Noticeable change in behavior: high anxiety, agitation
- Giving away possessions
- Writing or communicating about suicide or death
- Substance Use
What Can Parents Do?
- Eliminate access to lethal means if your child is at risk for suicidal behavior.
- Remove weapons from the home
- Lock up medicines
- If you are concerned about your teen’s behavior, increase supervision and monitoring at home, including monitoring of social media.
- Teach Emotional Intelligence- The ability to understand the emotions of others and to understand, regulate, and cope with their own emotions is a protective factor of suicide.
- Teach Decision-Making and Problem-Solving Skills, especially in relation to problems in relationships
- Get connected! Teens who feel emotionally connected and supported by family and peers are less likely to have suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
- If your teen won’t talk to you, help your teen build relationships with adults such as coaches, pastors, teachers, or therapists whom they can talk to about how they’re feeling
- At Brittani Persha Counseling, we support teens and their families to:
- Get a clear diagnosis if necessary
- Come up with a plan for emergencies
- Plan for reducing access to lethal means
- Talk about it!!! Research has shown that asking about suicide does not increase a teen’s risk for suicide or suicidal thoughts
Teens with strong social bonds to friends and family are less at risk for suicide
Talking to your Teen About Suicide
Many teens have difficulty recognizing symptoms of mental illness and talking about serious and sometimes embarrassing subjects such as suicide and self-harm. As terrifying as it sounds to ask your teen if they are having suicidal thoughts, it will show that you care and that you are willing to listen to their scary feelings. It also helps them to recognize that they aren’t alone, even though it may feel that way at times.
It may seem strange and unnatural to ask the question “Are you having thoughts about killing yourself?”, but practice can make it easier. Practice with your spouse, a friend, or therapist if you feel nervous about having the conversation with your teen.
If Your Teen is Considering Suicide Call 911 or go to the Nearest Emergency Department.
Counseling for Teens & Parents
Have you wondered if it’s time to get counseling for your teenager? Or are you looking for support for yourself as a parent? As a Houston area family counseling clinic, we are here to help. We offer individual counseling services to both teenagers in addition to parent counseling services. Please give Brittani Persha Counseling a call today so we can support both you and your suicidal teen.
Abdollahi, A., Carlbring, P, Khanbani, M., & Abdollahi Ghanfarokhi, S. 2016. Emotional intelligence moderates perceived stress and suicidal ideation among depressed adolescent inpatients. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.07.015.
King, C., & Ewell Foster, C., 2013. Teen Suicide Risk: A Practitioner Guide to Screening, Assessment, and Management. The Guilford Press, NY, NY.