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Suicide Prevention: How Safety Plans Can Help Teens

We never want to think of our teens as being at risk for suicide*, but it’s one of the leading causes of death among youths, making a safety plan an essential tool for suicide prevention.   

By taking a closer look at this topic, including suicide warning signs and risk factors, you can better understand how to help your teenager.  

Note: If you’re concerned your child 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.

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, CDC data shows 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, CDC data shows 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 are findings from a 2023 The Trevor Project survey of young people ages 13-24:   

  • 41% of LGBTQ+ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including half of transgender and nonbinary young people. For teens ages 13-17, 46% considered attempting it. 
  • 14% of LGBTQ+ young people attempted suicide in the past year, including nearly 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary young people. For teens ages 13-17, 17% attempted it. 

For insights on suicide prevention and 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.  

Suicide Risk Factors for Teens

Suicide prevention for teens involves identifying risk factors, but that’s sometimes hard to do. When looking for these factors, be open minded and consider your teenager’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 can also be environmental or related to physical or mental health, gender, or race.  

Environmental risk factors

Enviornmental risk factors are brought on by a teen’s daily environment. They 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 troubling them. 

Suicide risk factors can also appear as health-related issues. According to Atherton, when someone is experiencing a mental health risk factor, they’ll also often experience a physical health risk factor. This can increase suicidal actions and thoughts.  

Look out for the following risk factors for teenage suicide:  

  • Mental health 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 health 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 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’s torture for you.”   

What’s in a Suicide Safety Plan

A suicide safety plan is an important tool for suicide prevention for teens. A teenager typically creates this document with a therapist. 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.    

You should review your teen’s plan so you know what you can do to reduce the likelihood of a suicide attempt and how to best offer support. 

Your teenager’s suicide safety plan should include warning signs specific to them that indicate a crisis is starting to emerge so you’re all aware and can act accordingly. It should also list ways to make your child’s environment safe, coping strategies, reasons to live, supportive people who can help, and emergency contacts. 

1. Triggers and warning signs

Your teenager’s suicide safety plan should include triggers and warning signs that indicate they may be struggling with suicidal ideation, which refers to having thoughts of suicide. Identifying what could signal a crisis is critical to suicide prevention for teens. 

Triggers

Your child’s triggers may include: 

  • Isolation/loneliness. 
  • School stress. 
  • Anxiety. 
  • Anger. 
  • Death of a loved one or friend. 
  • Bullying. 
  • Abuse. 
  • A breakup. 

Warning signs

A variety of warning signs might apply to your teen, starting with negative or hopeless warning statements. 

Negative or hopeless warning statements
  • “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.”   
  • “I have no reason to live.” 
Other common warning signs
  • Experiencing mood swings.   
  • Feeling hopeless.   
  • Feeling humiliation or shame.   
  • Having a sudden deterioration of, and/or improvement in, symptoms.   
  • Increasing substance use.   
  • Isolating from family and friends.   
  • Losing interest in favorite activities.   
  • Being more argumentative with you.   
  • Sleeping more.  

2. Ways to make the environment safe

A suicide safety plan should include ways to make your teen’s environment safe. It should identify weapons and other dangerous items at home that could be used in a suicide attempt and what to do with them. 

Weapons and other dangerous objects

A safety plan should list weapons and other dangerous objects so you can remove them and decrease the likelihood of an attempt. 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.  

3. Alcohol, medications, or drugs

The plan should also identify alcohol, medications, and drugs, including over-the-counter drugs, at your home. You need to lock them up or remove them so you can 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.  

4. Helpful coping strategies

Your teen should list coping strategies that have helped them deal in the past or ones they’re willing to try in the future. It’s important to identify these strategies in a suicide safety plan so your teenager can quickly select an activity that can help ground them in the present moment and promote a sense of calm or comfort when they need it most. 

Some examples include: 

  • Talking to a friend or parent. 
  • Playing with pets. 
  • Listening to music. 
  • Watching funny videos. 
  • Gratitude journaling. 

5. Reasons to live

When your teen is feeling suicidal, it can be helpful for them to reference a list of reasons for living, which can shift their focus away from their reasons for — and thoughts of — dying. Their list could include the people and pets they love, favorite activities, and upcoming milestones, such as graduating from high school. 

6. Supportive contacts

A safety plan should include names and phone numbers of supportive people your teen can contact when they’re struggling with suicidal thoughts. These individuals should be trustworthy and understanding, ready to provide a listening ear and emotional support. 

Contacts could include: 

  • Parents or guardians. 
  • Family members outside the home. 
  • Friends. 
  • Mentors. 
  • Teachers. 

7. Emergency contacts

It’s essential that your teen’s safety plan includes emergency contact information should your child need immediate help. Contacts should include 911 and your local hospital as well as 988, the number for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. This national network of local crisis centers gives free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.   

Other Ways To Help a Suicidal Teen

Additional ways you can help with suicide prevention include creating a safe space for communication, being aware of and reducing their online activities, and getting them mental health treatment.  

Create a safe space to communicate

To help teens who have suicide 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.   

Talk to your teen about suicidal thoughts

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 decrease the stigma of this topic. For example, Atherton said, don‘t use “completed” when describing the act of taking one’s life (e.g., “She completed suicide”) because that word can indicate being successful at something, and you don’t want it to sound like suicide is something to accomplish.  

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.  

Be aware of and reduce 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 child’s online activities.   

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

Get mental health treatment for your teen

When looking for suicide treatment for your teenager, Atherton recommended starting with your insurance plan, if you have health insurance, and verifying 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 covered by your plan. You can also look for mental health resources at your teen’s school. Oftentimes, there’ll be a school counselor who can assist your teenager during school hours.  

When searching for suicide treatment for your child, be sure to find a provider or therapist who specializes in teen counseling and who can help you develop a suicide safety plan in case of an emergency.    

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, connect them with a mental health professional or emergency care when needed, and help them implement a suicide safety plan. By taking these steps, you can best support 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 big 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-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.