Suicide Prevention: Things to Know
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults aged 15–24, accounting for more deaths each year than all natural causes combined. In the U.S., an adolescent or young adult dies by suicide approximately every hour and a half, and for every death by suicide, there are 15–25 times as many suicide attempts.
The tragedy is that this loss of life is preventable. Suicidal crises usually pass, and treatment is available that can reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviors. So how does a parent or concerned individual know if their child or one of their child’s friends is at risk? What should they do if they suspect a teen or young adult may be having suicidal thoughts? We have compiled some information and resources that may help.
Educate Yourself on the Warning Signs
It can be very difficult to figure out if a youth or young adult is at risk for suicide. However, educating yourself on the warning signs can be a first step. The following list was compiled by a group of national and international experts:
Warning signs include:
Talking about or making plans for suicide
- Making statements like “Everyone would be better off if I were dead” or “I should just kill myself.”
- Researching methods for killing oneself on the internet.
- Seeking access to ways to kill oneself, such as buying/compiling medications, locating a gun or knife, or finding dangerous locations (i.e., rooftops, train tracks, etc.) that are easily accessible.
- Giving away important possessions, like a prized guitar, phone, or computer.
- Saying good-bye to family and friends or writing a suicide note.
Expressing hopelessness about the future
- Making statements like “Nothing will ever go right for me” or “Nothing will ever get better.”
- Seeming disinterested in future planning for things like school or college, seeking a driver’s license, or getting a job.
- Losing interest in things they previously cared deeply about—for example, if an athlete no longer cared about an important game or an honors student did not care when they failed a test.
Displaying severe/overwhelming emotional pain or distress
- External signs of emotional pain or distress may include withdrawal or frequent crying, panic, or angry outbursts.
- Suicide is frequently associated with mental health concerns, including depression or extreme sadness. However, depression is not the only precursor to suicidality. Some youth feel apathy or like nothing matters, have strong mood swings, or are very irritable. Other youth feel overwhelming anxiety, panic, or worry and do not know how to tolerate or change these feelings. Disordered eating, impulsive or reckless behavior, and alcohol or drug misuse are also associated with increased risk for suicide.
- Self-injury, such as intentionally cutting, scratching, or burning oneself, is not necessarily a suicide attempt, but does put youth or young adults at increased risk for suicide.
- Previous suicide attempts also increase the risk for future suicide attempts.
- If a youth recently went through a big loss or disappointment, such as a breakup with a significant other, familial discord or divorce, being cut from a sports team, academic failure, disciplinary or legal trouble, etc., this may cause emotional pain or distress. While negative emotional reactions to disappointment or loss are normal, prolonged, overwhelming, or severe/inconsolable distress is not.
Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior, particularly in the presence of the warning signs above. Specifically, this includes significant:
- Withdrawal from or changes in social connections/situations.
- Changes in sleep (increased or decreased).
- Anger or hostility that seems out of character or out of context.
- Recent increased agitation, restlessness, or irritability.
More information on these warning signs is available at: http://www.youthsuicidewarningsigns.org/
Do you know an at-risk youth or young adult?
Given that over 15 percent of youth and young adults have considered suicide in the past year, it is very likely that you may come in contact with a child, teen, or young adult who is having suicidal thoughts. A youth at risk may be your child’s friend or schoolmate; in your Scouts troop, sports league, or community theatre group; or at your local community center, church, or synagogue. Anyone who knows a youth or young adult well can identify and help a youth at risk for suicide. A parent, relative, coach, teacher, or any trusted adult may be the first to recognize if something is wrong.
What can you do if you think a youth or young adult is at risk for suicide?
Experts recommend these ways to approach and assist a youth or young adult at risk for suicide:
- Ask them if they are okay or if they are thinking of hurting or killing themself. Do not be afraid to ask directly: “Are you having thoughts of hurting or killing yourself?” Asking youth and young adults about suicide will not “put the idea in their heads.” In fact, for those who are considering suicide, many feel relief when they can discuss their thoughts and feelings.
- Express your concern about what you are observing in their behavior. “It seems as though you’re really depressed lately and that worries me.” Or, “What you said about wanting to hurt yourself really concerns me.”
- Listen to them attentively and nonjudgmentally. Youth and young adults considering suicide need your support, not to have their experiences dismissed as silly, dramatic, or an overreaction. Don’t interrupt or try to say things are not as bad as they think. Rather, let them talk about their thoughts and feelings and be a good listener.
- Reflect on what they share and let them know they have been heard. Do not be afraid to repeat back to them or summarize what you have heard to make sure you understand. “It sounds like you have been really sad and angry over arguments at home and with your girlfriend.” Don’t pass judgment on their statements; just let them know that you have been listening and understand why they are upset.
- Tell them they are not alone. Having mental health concerns can be very isolating and can make youth and young adults feel like they are different from everyone else or no one else can understand. Let them know that they aren’t the only one and that other people have felt this way before—overwhelmed, depressed, scared, angry. Even more importantly, let them know that you and others care and are there to support them.
- Let them know there are treatments available that can help. Feeling suicidal usually means that a youth or young adult is feeling hopeless and out of better options for escaping unbearabe painful emotions or situations. Many youth feel as though no one can help them. Let them know that treatment can help.
- Guide them to professional help. Know what resources are available to connect youth to the help they need, including professional mental health workers, informal community sources of help, crisis lines, and information available online. If you believe the youth is in imminent danger of harming themself, call 911 or take them directly to the emergency room.
More information for parents, guardians, and other concerned adults on how to help is available at: http://www.youthsuicidewarningsigns.org/
If your child, teen, or young adult is suicidal, what should you do?
- Remain hopeful, so you can give your child hope. Suicide is preventable and treatable.
- Take any opportunity to tell your child that you know they are struggling, but that you support them and things will get better. Let them know that you are listening and you want to understand how they are feeling.
- Get help. See our list of resources for more information and treatment options.
- Work with a mental health professional to focus treatment on keeping your child safe and helping them to get well. Treatment may include developing coping skills, changing certain thought or behavioral patterns, creating a safety plan, increasing parental monitoring, and removing potentially lethal means from the home.
- For youth and young adults, making the home safe is critical. Parents should restrict access to or remove dangerous items from the home entirely. This is especially important with regard to firearms (the leading cause of death by suicide), but may also include caustic liquids, sharp objects, medications, or items that could be used for hanging.
- The stress of caring for a suicidal child is sometimes overwhelming. Remember: You cannot help your child if you do not take care of yourself first. The goal is for you not to feel alone in this difficult situation, so seek support from a spouse, friend, family member, or therapist.
Get Help Now!
- If you think that someone may need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The hot line is available 24/7, and your call is free and confidential. Trained crisis workers in your area can assist you and the youth or young adult in deciding what they need right now.
- Remember, if youth or young adults are at risk for harming themselves right now or have already harmed themselves, call 911 or take them to an emergency room immediately.
- Looking for a mental health professional near you? Try the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
Suicide Prevention Resources for Parents and Families
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Suicide Prevention Resources for Families
- National Alliance of School Psychologists: Preventing Youth Suicide: Tips for Parents and Educators
- The Jed Foundation: Resources for Parents
- National Institute of Mental Health
Comprehensive Information on Mental Illness, Government-Funded Research, and Information About Treatment
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization for people with mental illness and their families.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP): A nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing loss of life from suicide. The website offers tips on how to reach out to those at risk for suicide, helpful statistics, and resources in every state.
- American Association for Suicidology (AAS): AAS is an organization for all those involved in suicide prevention and intervention, or touched by suicide. AAS is a leader in the advancement of scientific and programmatic efforts in suicide prevention through research, education, and training; the development of standards and resources; and survivor support services.
Suicide Prevention Resources for Teens and Young Adults
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
The hot line and online chat line are available 24/7, and your call is free and confidential.
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Suicide Prevention Resources for Teens
- The Jed Foundation: Resources for Students
- The Trevor Project: Resources for LGBT Youth
Christa D. Labouliere, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and Project Administrator of the Suicide Prevention - Training, Implementation, and Evaluation (SP-TIE) program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University. She is responsible for the design, implementation, and evaluation of statewide suicide prevention efforts, including training of clinicians in empirically-supported, suicide-specific interventions. Her research has resulted in numerous peer-reviewed publications and book chapters on the topics of mood and anxiety disorders and self-destructive behavior.