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When Suicide Prevention Involves Your Own Teen

We never want to think of our children as being at risk for suicide*, but it’s one of the leading causes of death among teenagers, making suicide prevention for teens a critical issue for parents.  

By taking a closer look at this topic, including the warning signs and risk factors, you can better understand how to implement protective factors to help keep your teen safe.  

Suicide Rates in Teens 

The teen suicide rates are alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in the United States for children ages 10-14 and the third-leading cause for young people ages 15-24. In addition: 

  • When filtered by race, the CDC’s data show suicide was the leading cause of death for ages 10-14 in two groups: American Indian and Alaska Native children and Asian American and Pacific Islander children. It was the second-leading cause for ages 15-24 in those same groups. 
  • When filtered by sex, the CDC’s data show that for males, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-14 and third-leading case for ages 15-24. For females, it was the second-leading cause for both age groups, making females ages 15-24 at a higher risk than their male peers for taking their lives. 

Also noteworthy is information on teenage suicide from The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. According to the survey of young people ages 13-24:  

  • 14% of LGBTQ youths attempted suicide in the past year, including nearly 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary youths. 
  • 45% of LGBTQ youths seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. 

For insights on how to help a teenager with suicidal thoughts, we spoke to Katherine Atherton, a therapist at OPI, a young adult transitional living program in California. 

Teen Suicide Warning Signs 

When it comes to suicide prevention for teens, there are several signs of suicide you should look for in your teenager.  

Negative or hopeless warning statements from your teen 

  • “I don’t deserve good things.”  
  • “I don’t matter. Nobody cares.”  
  • “If my friends or parents knew, they’d hate me.”  
  • “This is never going to end.”  

Other common warning signs 

  • Experiencing mood swings.  
  • Feeling hopeless.  
  • Feeling humiliation or shame.  
  • Having a sudden deterioration of, and/or improvement in, symptoms.  
  • Increasing their substance use.  
  • Isolating from family and friends.  
  • Losing interest in things they once enjoyed.  
  • Being more argumentative with you.  
  • Sleeping more. 
  • Stating they have no reason to live.  

These are indicators that your teen may be struggling with suicidal ideation, which refers to having thoughts of suicide. 

Suicide Risk Factors for Teens 

Suicide prevention for teens also involves identifying suicide risk factors, but that can sometimes be hard to do. When looking for these factors, be open minded and consider your teen’s past and present challenges, such as:  

  • Previous suicide attempts. 
  • Job struggles. 
  • A family history of suicide. 
  • Childhood abuse, neglect, or trauma. 
  • A recent or serious loss, such as a death in the family. 

Suicide risk factors for teens can also be environmental or related to a teen’s physical or mental health, gender, or race. 

Environmental risk factors  

Enviornmental risk factors are brought on by the environment a teen is in daily. To help teens who have these risk factors, Atherton said parents should create an environment in which teenagers who are struggling can feel comfortable talking to someone about how they’re feeling, or going to the ER or calling a hotline if they need immediate help.  

Environmental risk factors for teenage suicide include: 

  • Academic pressure.  
  • Bullying.  
  • Conflict with family or friends.  
  • High stress levels.  
  • Substance use.  
  • Access to drugs, firearms, or other weapons.

Teens with these risk factors may feel like suicide is the only answer to the issues they’re struggling with in life.  

Suicide risk factors can also appear as health-related issues. According to Atherton, oftentimes when someone is experiencing a mental health risk factor, they’ll also experience a physical health risk factor. This can increase suicidal actions and thoughts. Look out for the following risk factors for teenage suicide: 

  • Mental risk factors 
    • Depression.  
    • Anxiety.  
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  
    • Borderline personality disorder (BPD).  
    • Bipolar disorder.  
    • Oppositional defiant disorder.
    • An eating disorder.  
    • Reactive attachment disorder.  
    • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 
    • Conduct disorder. 
    • Aggressive behavior. 
    • Antisocial personality disorder. 
  • Physical risk factors.
    • Chronic illness. 
    • Serious injury. 
    • Disability. 

Teens who are part of the LGBTQ community or belong to certain racial groups are at a higher risk for attempting suicide. They can feel alone, marginalized, or different, and they may feel like they can’t go to someone when they’re having those feelings, according to Atherton.   

Gender- and racial-related risk factors for teenage suicide include: 

  • Gender identity issues, also known as gender dysphoria. 
  • Being transgender or transitioning to another gender. 
  • Being part of a racial group with a high teenage suicide rate.

Atherton noted, “Suicidality is very high in the LGBTQ community, specifically in the transgender community. Imagine being stuck in a body that is torture for you.”  

Protective Factors: How Parents Can Help Reduce Suicide Risks 

Protective factors are important ways to prevent suicide. Below are a few ideas for how to help a suicidal teenager. 

Talk to your teen about suicide 

How should you talk to your child about teenage suicide? When speaking to your teenager, language matters, according to Atherton. By carefully choosing your words, you can help take away from the stigma of this topic. For example, don‘t use “completed” when describing the act of taking one’s life (e.g., “She completed suicide”) because the word “completed” can indicate being successful at something, and you don’t want it to sound like suicide is something you can accomplish, according to Atherton. 

When asking your teen questions, check if they feel safe today and encourage discussion of any suicidal thoughts they’re experiencing. Respond with empathy. 

Listen to your teen 

Actively listen to your teen, as it’s an opportunity to build an emotional connection with them. Practice proactive listening so you can better understand them and encourage them to express their feelings. By having an open mind and a nonjudgmental perspective, you may be able to understand why they feel the way they do about suicide. 

Remove weapons and dangerous objects from your home  

By removing weapons and dangerous objects from your home, you’re decreasing the likelihood of a suicide attempt there. It’s especially important that your teen does not have access to a gun. According to a study published in the Academic Pediatrics journal, adolescents who have access to firearms are more likely to experience suicidal ideation and to attempt suicide than those who don’t have access. 

Lock up alcohol, medications, or drugs, or remove them from your home  

Lock up or remove alcohol, medications, and drugs, including over-the-counter drugs, because you’ll make it harder for your teen to use them if that’s the method they intend to try during a suicide attempt, according to Atherton. Taking this step also puts space between thinking about suicide and acting on that thought. 

Reduce and be aware of your teen’s online activities  

With technology constantly accessible, it’s important to make sure your teen is being safe online. Atherton said having a good relationship with your teenager is important, as they’ll be more likely to talk to you about how they’re feeling and discuss their online activity with you.  

Here are a few tips for being aware of and reducing your teen’s online activities.  

  1. Keep an eye out for online searches that indicate your teen is planning to attempt suicide.   
  1. Watch for your teen using chatrooms or online communities directed toward suicide. 
  1. Talk to your teen about upsetting or inappropriate content you find or suspect your teen may be browsing. 
  1. Set up ground rules with your teen, such as no screen time after 9 p.m. 

Get mental health treatment for your teen 

When looking for suicide treatment for your teen, Atherton recommended you start with your insurance plan, if you have health insurance, and verify if you have mental health coverage. If you do, you can visit your plan’s website or call the number on your insurance card to find providers who are covered by your plan. You can also look for mental health resources at the school your teen attends. Oftentimes, there will be a school counselor who can assist your teen during school hours. 

When searching for suicide treatment for your child, be sure to find a provider or therapist who specializes in teen counseling.   

Get a suicide safety plan for your teen 

A suicide safety plan is an important tool for suicide prevention for teens. This document is created jointly by a therapist and their client, according to Atherton. Your teen can keep their plan with them in case they experience a crisis. They can then quickly reference it and see what they need to do.  

A suicide safety plan should include warning signs specific to your teen that indicate a crisis is starting to emerge so your child can be aware and act accordingly. It should also list coping skills, problem-solving skills, names of supportive people who can help, reasons to live, phone numbers in case of emergencies, and protective factors. 

Call 911 or 988, or visit the ER visit if needed 

If you feel as though your teen needs immediate help, they can call or text 988. The 988 number will connect your child with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a national network of local crisis centers that give free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

If you’re concerned your teen is in immediate danger of harming themselves and may need 24/7 care and supervision to stay safe, you can take them to the ER or call 911. 

Teen Suicide Prevention Wrapup  

With suicide one of the leading causes of death for teens, it’s important that you take an active role in safeguarding your child’s mental health. Identify any warning signs and risk factors in your teenager and implement protective factors, including talking to them about how they’re feeling and contacting a mental health professional if needed. By taking these steps, you can help your child and make a difference in one of the most important causes for today’s youths: suicide prevention for teens.   

“The current generation has so many resources at their disposal, and they’re the most open and accepting generation that I’ve ever worked with,” Atherton said. “We just need to provide them with the resources, the connection, and the support that they need and listen to them, because they have a lot to say.” 

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling or texting 988 or chatting online. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.   

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.