It’s always very sad when someone chooses to end his or her own life. But suicide is especially tragic when it occurs in the life of an adolescent.
According to statistics from the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents in the U.S. It accounts for approximately 11% of all deaths in this age group, following only by accidents and homicide (the two leading causes, respectively). It’s one of the leading causes of death for European teens as well. Needless to say, teen suicide is very serious problem.
When a teen ends his or her life, the impact on parents can be severe. Ask anyone who’s had to bury a child, and they’ll almost certainly tell you that nothing in life could be more painful or gut wrenching. When that death is from suicide, most parents carry the additional burden of self-blame and tremendous guilt – wracking their mind for months and even years to come for an ever elusive answer as to why. They desperately yearn for a second chance to do something – anything – differently, something that just might have prevented the tragedy.
But that answer often never comes, and closure seems impossible.
The teen years are some of the most difficult to navigate for most people. The carefree, simple days of childhood are over and suddenly life becomes much more complex. Adolescence brings numerous pressures and burdens, including overwhelming peer pressure, a fragile self-esteem and sense of self, hormonal fluctuations that wreak havoc with one’s body and emotions, and an often constant struggle just to fit in. It’s truly a wonder any of us survive that phase of life, considering how ill-equipped we were to navigate our way through it.
Some don’t survive it. The overwhelming anguish of a broken heart, emotional or physical abuse, lack of support, relentless bullying, feelings of shame and unworthiness, drugs or alcohol abuse, unbearable internal pain, confusion regarding sexual orientation, a sudden or tragic loss, and most of all, the short-sighted but powerful belief that there is no hope at all – these are the things that can make a vulnerable teen turn to suicide as the only means of escape or the only solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.
Hidden Anguish And Missed Signals With Adolescent Suicide
It’s not uncommon for parents and other loved ones to be completely taken by surprise when a teen either makes a serious suicide attempt or successfully ends his or her life. This is often due to several factors. One reason is that a lot of teens, especially adolescent males, are very good at concealing their true emotions. They put on an outward air of “everything’s fine,” when nothing could be further from the truth. Another contributing factor is that there’s often a serious communication gap between teens and their parents – if something’s going on, teens often won’t talk about it and some parents are too preoccupied or oblivious to notice. If they do notice, they may be quick to minimize it, chalking it up to “adolescent angst” or assuming it will blow over. A third factor is that many parents don’t recognize the warning signs of a potentially suicidal teen. These signs can be quite subtle. Sadly, even when adolescents do openly state things like wishing they were dead or threatening to kill themselves, their misinterpreted as mere attention-seeking or typical teen drama. It’s only in retrospect – and often when it’s tragically too late – that the seriousness of such cries for help are realized.
One of the biggest issues that contributes to missed signals is that many parents refuse to believe that “their” teen could or would ever even consider suicide – let alone actually attempt it. That sort of thing happens only to “other” people’s children. The stubborn mentality that “my child would never attempt suicide” is dangerous. It is this over-confident, sometimes arrogant, and blind refusal to accept that ALL teens are vulnerable – no matter how pretty, handsome, popular, talented, happy, smart, successful, or religiously grounded that teen may appear to be.
It’s important to remember that appearances can be incredibly deceiving. Even teens who seem to “have it all” (at least from everyone else’s perspective) can become suicidal under the right circumstances.
Risk Factors For Suicide In Teens
As with most things in life, there are certain things that increase the odds that a teen may contemplate and eventually attempt suicide. Just because one or more risk factors is present doesn’t mean a teen will become suicidal. However, when they are present, it’s important to be aware that any one of them – and especially a combination of them – may increase his or her vulnerability. Some of the more common suicide risk factors include:
- Feelings of hopelessness / the belief that nothing will ever get better or that the pain will never go away (This is a key risk factor for suicide across all age groups, but teens are particularly vulnerable due to their age and lack of life experience – they haven’t yet learned that most things do eventually pass, no matter how awful or terrible it seems in the moment)
- Family history of suicide
- One or more past suicide attempts
- Accessibility to weapons or other means of self-harm (e.g. a gun or potentially lethal medication)
- Recent major loss (this can also include less obvious losses like moving far away from close friends, loved ones, or early childhood home)
- Current or past sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
- Difficulty managing anger or aggressive impulses
- Very limited or no emotional support
- Frequent parental conflict or uninvolved, detached parents
- Social isolation
- Bullying by peers
- Mental health issues, particularly major depression, social anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, psychosis / schizophrenia, body dysmorphic disorder, HOCD (OCD in which the primary obsession is the fear of being gay or lesbian), or gender dysphoria
- Serious medical issues
- Substance abuse or dependence
- Very low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness
Warning Signs Of Suicidal Teens
In most cases, there are almost always warning signs that a teen is contemplating suicide. Some are more subtle than others, of course. And some may turn out to be false indicators in the end. But it’s important to pay close attention if you observe any of these potential clues in your teen:
- Social withdrawal / isolation / spending less time with family and friends
- Lack of motivation (sometimes what appears to be laziness is actually depression)
- Depressed or sad mood
- Frequent intense mood swings
- Increased irritability or outbursts of anger
- Frequent sullenness or tearfulness
- Drop in school performance that can’t be explained by other factors
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Notable changes in sleep or appetite (can be an increase or decrease in either, or problems sleeping)
- Statements that may suggest suicidal thinking, e.g. that they are a burden, should have never been born, are worthless, wish they were dead, or talking about life once they’re gone
- Giving away or getting rid of prized possessions
- Difficulties coping with a significant loss (e.g. a beloved pet, a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, ending of a close friendship, death of a close friend or relative) (In the case of a death, pay close attention to any talk of wanting to “be with” or “join” the deceased loved one)
- Blatant statements that they are thinking about suicide
- Threats of suicide
- “Goodbye” letters, statements, or hints
- Suicide note
If you notice any of these signs in your teen, talk to him or her. Don’t lecture. Don’t assume the worst. Don’t make it about you. Open communication and letting your teen know you are always there to listen and help in any way possible can definitely reduce the chance of suicide.
Suicide Attempts And Completed Suicides
Many teens have a fleeting thought of ending their life now and again as they struggle to navigate their way through adolescence. In fact, an occasional thought of suicide is not uncommon at all. For some teens, it may be a brief thought that they quickly shake off, while others may give suicide serious consideration for a short period of time. Fortunately, the vast majority of teens never go so far as to develop a suicide plan or act on their suicidal thoughts.
Suicide attempts (or unsuccessful suicides) occur far more often than completed suicides. Some data suggests that the number is approximately 25 attempts for every on successful suicide. That being said, an attempt should always be taken seriously, as a history of one or more attempts is often a precursor to a successful suicide.
As a general rule, teenage males are much more likely to successfully kill themselves (to the tune of 4 to 1) than their female peers. Adolescent girls, however, will make far more attempts. This is largely due to three factors:
- Teenage girls are more likely than males to attempt suicide in a way that has a much greater likeliness of being found and rescued before it’s too late
- Teenage girls usually opt for less lethal methods (e.g. non-lethal drug overdose or superficial wrist cutting), whereas males are more likely to resort to the use of firearms, hanging, or jumping from a high building or bridge – all of which are much more likely to result in death.
- Teenage boys are reluctant to talk about or show their feelings, especially painful ones. They are also much less likely to seek help or support. Teenage girls, on the other hand, tend to be more emotionally open and expressive, and many will reach out for help or support when they are struggling emotionally.
Help And Treatment For Suicidal Teens
If your teen is struggling with suicidal thoughts, treatment is essential. Don’t ever make the mistake of trivializing talk of suicide or any type of suicide attempt – no matter how minor it may appear. Even if you feel your teen is simply seeking attention, it’s important to understand that any suicidal behavior could result in death – even if death wasn’t the real goal. At the very least, have your teen evaluated by a psychologist or other mental health professional who specializes in treating adolescents.
Some teens make frequent suicidal threats but never act on them. This doesn’t mean, however, that those threats are merely idle or manipulative and should be ignored. If this is happening with your teen, it’s important to address them. A mental health professional who has evaluated your teen can guide you in terms of 1) the best course of action (e.g. therapy, medication, other types of intervention) and 2) how to handle these threats when they do occur.
Hospitalization (medical and / or psychiatric) may be necessary in some cases, especially if the risk for self-harm is deemed imminent (psychiatric), or a serious attempt has been made (medical, then psychiatric once medically stable). In other cases, individual and / or family therapy may be sufficient to address the underlying issues. Psychiatric hospitalization provides both safety (with 24/7 monitoring) and intensive treatment to address the acute issues. If hospitalization is necessary, it’s important to follow-up with outpatient treatment to ensure the best long-term outcome.
The teenage years can be the most rocky and challenging. They can also be the most exciting and rewarding. If you’re a teen, always remember that no matter how difficult or hopeless life may seem today, the future can be vastly different and so much brighter. If you’re a parent, strive to keep the doors of communication open with your teen, so that he or she always knows that you’re there – especially in a time of crisis.