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Published: July, 2019; Vol 16, Num 2

 

Recognizing Warning Signs as Teen Suicide Rises

Suicide is now the second most common cause of death among young people between ages 10-24. The CDC reports that suicide rates among young people jumped 56 percent between 2007 and 2016. Teens dealing with rejection, failure, breakups and family turmoil may be unable to see they can turn their lives around – and instead end up viewing suicide as a permanent response to a temporary problem.

Many teens who attempt or die by suicide have depression or another mental health condition. While we don’t know all the reasons for the rise in suicide among adolescents and young adults, we do know that increased social media use, lack of sleep and being acutely aware of stress experienced by the adults in their lives are all contributing factors for depression. A growing amount of research points to the association between heavy technology use and rising rates of suicide and depression among adolescents and young adults due to the following:

  • Cyberbullying
  • Increased fear and anxiety of being left out
  • Lack of sleep
  • Less exercise and other non-screen activities
  • Less meaningful communication with family members. (Adults should be aware of their screen time too and the impact it can have on kids.)

Factors Contributing to a Higher Risk for Suicide

There are many additional factors that increase risk for suicide among teens and young adults, including:

  • Depression or other psychiatric illness: Children and teens who are depressed have a higher risk of suicide. Symptoms of depression are sometimes obvious, but some kids are good at hiding their feelings or don’t know how to share them.
  • Use of alcohol and other substances: Substance use is a factor in roughly one third of youth suicides. Parents’ substance abuse and mental health problems are also a factor.
  • Behavior problems: Adolescents with a history of aggressive, impulsive behavior have a much higher risk of suicide.
  • Easy access to lethal means: Firearms are the top cause of death for teens age 15-19 who commit suicide.
  • Bullying and cyberbullying: Children who are bullied – and those who bully others – are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts and actions.
  • Sexual orientation: Many adolescents who take their own lives are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or are questioning their gender identity (LGBTQ).
  • Ongoing family conflicts, dealing with abuse and violence and a lack of connectedness with family members are also factors.

Suicide Warning Signs to Look For

Brain Development

Regardless of how smart a teenager or young adult may be, research suggests the rational part of our brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25. Adult and teen brains work differently. In teens, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.

  • Spending more time alone (including time away from regular friends)
  • Decrease in desire to do things they used to like (sports, activities, hobbies)
  • Physical ailments (headaches, appetite problems, sleeping problems)
  • Reckless behavior (e.g., binge drinking, drug use) or problems in school (e.g., failing grades, getting into trouble)
  • Low self-esteem, sadness or hopelessness
  • Drastic personality change, especially involving agitation, restlessness, distress or panicky behavior
  • Writing stories and poems about death, dying or suicide; giving away prized possessions
  • Saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever,” or romanticizing death, such as “If I died, people might love me more”
  • Seeking out weapons, pills or other ways to die
  • Not caring about their appearance

What to Do If You Suspect Your Teen Is Thinking About Suicide

Talk to him or her immediately. Don’t be afraid to use the word “suicide.” Talking about suicide won’t plant ideas in your teen’s head. Remind your teen that he or she can work through whatever is going on – and that you’re willing to help.

Seek medical help for your teen. Ask your teen’s doctor to guide you. Teens who are feeling suicidal usually need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist experienced in diagnosing and treating children with mental health problems. The doctor will want to get an accurate picture of what’s going on from a variety of sources.

You can take additional steps to help, including:

  • Address depression or anxiety. Don’t wait for your teen to come to you. Ask what's wrong and offer your help. Don’t dismiss his or her problems. Instead, reassure your teen of your love.
  • Pay attention. Watch for warning signs. Listen to what your child is saying and never shrug off threats of suicide as teen melodrama.
  • Discourage isolation. Encourage your teen to spend time with supportive friends and family.
  • Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Help your teen eat well, exercise and get regular sleep.
  • Support the treatment plan. If your teen is undergoing treatment for suicidal behavior, remind him or her that it might take time to feel better. Help your teen follow his or her doctor’s recommendations. Encourage your teen to participate in activities that will help him or her rebuild confidence.
  • Safely store firearms, alcohol and medications. Access to lethal means can play a role if a teen is already suicidal.

Remember, teen suicide is preventable. If you're worried about your teen, talk to him or her and seek help right away.

Resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in a national network. These centers provide 24-hour crisis counseling and mental health referrals.

Crisis Text Line

Text from anywhere in the U.S. with a trained Crisis Counselor. Text Hello to 741741. Every texter is connected with a volunteer trained in active listening and collaborative problem solving.

To make use of similar resources in Canada, visit Crisis Services Canada at www.crisisservicescanada.ca/.

[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]