About Teen Suicide
Suicide is when someone dies on purpose. 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.
If you're worried about your teen or another child, take it seriously and talk to them right away. You also can turn to these resources for 24/7 help:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741. You also can contact them through their website.
- Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ community: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. You can also contact them through their website.
These toll-free lines are staffed by people who are trained to help. The calls are confidential. If necessary, call 911 for immediate help.
Note: In 2020, the FCC established 988 as the new, nationwide, 3-digit phone number for Americans in crisis to connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors. All phone service providers must direct 988 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16, 2022.
Why Do Teens Consider Suicide?
Learning more about what might lead a teen to suicide may help prevent further tragedies.
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 many more attempts are made for every completed teen suicide.
- The risk of suicide increases greatly 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 guns 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 risk for attempting and completing suicide. It's important to monitor carefully all medicines in your home. Know that teens will "trade" different prescription medicines 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, and experts think this is because they tend to use more lethal methods.
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 bullied are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts.
Things that increase the risk of suicide among teens include:
- a psychological disorder, especially depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol and drug use (in fact, about 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 come with 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
- struggling with their gender identity and/or sexuality in an unsupportive family or community
What Are the Warning Signs of Suicide?
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
- have changes in eating or sleeping habits
- engage in risk-taking behaviors
- lose interest in school or sports
What Can Parents Do?
Many teens who die by 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.
Even though it's not always preventable, it's always a good idea to be informed and take action to help a troubled teenager.
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.
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 because 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.
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, but for a teen it can feel immense and consuming. Don't minimize or ignore what your teen is going through, as this can increase their 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 it can be hard. 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?"
How Can We Get Help?
If you learn that your child is thinking about suicide, get help right away. Your doctor can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist, or your local hospital's department of psychiatry can give you a list of doctors in your area. Your local mental health association or county medical society can also provide references. In an emergency, call 1-800-273-8255.
If your teen is in a crisis situation, your local emergency room can do a psychiatric evaluation and refer you to the right resources. If you're unsure about whether you should bring your child to the emergency room, call your doctor.
If you've scheduled a visit with a mental health professional, keep the appointment, even if your teen says they're feeling better or won't go. Suicidal thoughts do tend to come and go. But your teen needs help to develop the skills needed to keep suicidal thoughts and behaviors under control during a crisis.
If your teen won't go to the visit, tell the mental health professional. By going to the session and working with the clinician yourself, you'll maintain access to the help your child needs. The clinician also can discuss ways that might help your teen agree to get help.
Remember that conflicts between a parent and child can make things worse for teens who feel isolated, misunderstood, devalued, or suicidal. Get help for family problems and resolve them in a healthy way. Tell the mental health professional if your family has a history of depression, substance abuse, or domestic violence. Talk about any other stresses at home, such as an ongoing environment of criticism.
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. These feelings may never completely go away. But survivors of suicide can take steps to begin the healing process:
- Keep in contact with others. Suicide can be isolating for surviving family members because friends often don't know what to say or how to help. Find supportive people to talk with about your child and your feelings. If those around you seem uncomfortable about reaching out, start 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. Be there for each other through the tears, anger, and silences — and, if necessary, get help and support together.
- Expect that anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays may be hard. 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 huge role in helping you realize you are not alone. Sometimes, bereaved family members become part of the suicide prevention network that helps parents, teenagers, and schools learn how to help prevent future tragedies.
Helping Teens Cope With Loss
What should you do if someone your teen knows has attempted or died by 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 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 they're ready.
When someone attempts suicide and survives, people might be afraid of or uncomfortable talking with them about it. Tell your teen to resist this urge — this is a time when a person 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 them to use resources or to talk to you or another trusted adult.