Suicide Prevention Tips for Youth & Young Adults
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people. That’s more than all natural causes combined. A teen or young adult dies by suicide every hour and a half. And for every death, there are 15–25 times as many attempts.
What’s so sad is that this loss of life is preventable. Suicidal crises pass, and treatment is available that can reduce suicidal thoughts and behavior. So how do you know if someone is at risk? What should you do if you think someone may be having suicidal thoughts? Here is some information and resources to help.
Do you know someone who may be at risk?
In the past year, 15 percent of teens and young adults thought about suicide. Since that’s a lot of people, you may know one of them. They could be your friend or classmate; in your sports league, dance class, or theatre group; at your local community center, church, or synagogue; or someone you know from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or online multiplayer games. Anyone can help identify someone at risk. Often, a concerned friend or family member may be the first to know if something is wrong.
How do you know if someone is at risk for suicide?
It can be hard to figure out if someone is at risk for suicide. However, learning the warning signs can be a first step. A group of national and international experts came up with these questions to ask yourself.
Has your friend or family member said or shown any of the following:
Talking about wanting to die, be dead, or about suicide?
Sometimes this can be obvious, like saying “everyone would be better off if I were dead” or “I should just kill myself.” Other times, people may not say it directly. Instead, they may show it through their behavior:
- Learning about ways to kill themself on the internet.
- Getting things needed to kill themself—for example, buying medicine, finding a gun or knife, or looking for dangerous places (i.e., rooftops, train tracks, etc.) that are nearby and not restricted.
- Giving away important belongings, like a prized guitar, phone, or computer.
- Saying good-bye to family and friends or writing a suicide note.
Cutting or burning themselves?
- Self-injury is when people hurt themselves on purpose. For example, cutting, scratching, or burning themselves or bruising parts of their body. This doesn’t mean that they are trying to kill themselves. However, it does mean that they don’t know a better way to deal with upsetting emotions or life situations. This increases their risk for suicide.
- Prior suicide attempts also increase their risk.
Feeling like things may never get better?
Sometimes people say it directly, like “nothing will ever go right for me” or “things never get better.” Other times, people show it through their behavior:
- Not caring about the future. Examples: Not caring about prom, starting school or college, or getting a driver’s license or job.
- Not caring about things they used to care deeply about. Examples: If an athlete didn’t care about an important game or an honors student didn’t care about failing a test.
Seeming like they are in terrible emotional pain? Or like something is wrong deep inside but they can’t make it go away?
Suicide often comes with other problems. Some people thinking of suicide may experience:
- Depression or extreme sadness.
- Trouble paying attention.
- Numbness or feeling like nothing matters.
- Strong mood swings (happy-to-sad or happy-to-angry).
- Feeling really annoyed or irritable.
- Feeling overwhelmed, anxious, panicky, or worried.
- Self-injury, such as cutting, scratching, or burning themselves on purpose.
- Disordered eating, such as eating too much or too little, making themselves throw up, or exercising too much.
- Impulsive or reckless behavior, like doing things without thinking or not caring if they might get hurt.
- Drinking, smoking, or using drugs too often.
Struggling to deal with a big loss or disappointment in their life?
Everyone gets upset when they experience a big loss or disappointment. This could be a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, parents getting divorced, arguing a lot with their family or friends, being cut from a sports team, failing a class, or getting in trouble. Getting upset for a little while is normal. However, someone may be at risk if they are:
- Upset for much longer than most people would be.
- Much more upset than most people would be.
- So upset that they cannot do things they need to do, like go to school or work.
- So upset that nothing makes them feel better.
Or is your gut telling you to be worried about them because something has changed?
- Have they withdrawn from everyone and everything?
- Do they seem more worried or on edge?
- Do they seem unusually angry?
- Do they seem overly fidgety, restless, or uncomfortable?
- Are they sleeping or eating a lot more or less than usual?
- Maybe they just don’t seem like themselves to you?
For more information on warning signs: http://www.youthsuicidewarningsigns.org/
If you notice these warning signs in a friend or famly member, you can help!
What can you do if you think someone is at risk for suicide?
Experts recommend these ways to approach and assist someone at risk:
- Ask them if they are okay or if they are thinking of hurting or killing themself. Don’t be afraid to ask directly: “Are you having thoughts of hurting or killing yourself?” Asking about suicide will not “put the idea in their head.” In fact, a lot of people thinking about suicide feel relieved when they can talk about their feelings.
- Listen to them like a true friend. Someone thinking about suicide needs your support. So don’t say they’re being silly, dramatic, or overreacting. Don’t interrupt or try to say things are not as bad as they think; just let them talk about their thoughts and feelings, and be a good listener.
- Tell them you are worried and concerned about them. “It seems like you’re really sad lately and that worries me.” Or, “What you said about wanting to hurt yourself really concerns me.”
- Let them know they have been heard. Don’t be afraid to repeat back to them 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 judge what they say; 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 lonely. People may feel like they are different from everyone else or that no one can understand. Let them know that they aren’t the only one. Other people have felt this way before—overwhelmed, depressed, scared, angry. Even more importantly, let them know that you and others care, and you’re there to support them.
- Talk to an adult you trust about your concerns and direct the adult to this page. Don’t ever keep suicidal thoughts or plans a secret! Don’t worry that talking to an adult will betray their trust or “tattle” on them. Even if they get mad for a little while, at least they will be alive. Most of the time, suicidal adolescents and young adults are relieved when someone finally knows. Remember, being a good friend can save their life. And a trusted adult, like a parent, sibling, teacher, coach, or pastor, will help you know what to do.
Feeling suicidal usually means that someone is hopeless. They may feel like no one can help. They may be out of better options for escaping feelings or situations that are unbearable and painful. But they can feel better again someday, and a trusted adult will get them the help they need.
If you believe someone is going to hurt themself right now or has already hurt themself, call 911 immediately or get an adult to take them straight to the emergency room.
For more information on how to help: http://www.youthsuicidewarningsigns.org/
Thank you for caring enough to make a difference!
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The hot line and online chat line are free, confidential, and available 24/7.
- The Trevor Project: Resources for LGBT Youth
Call:Available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386
Text: Available on Fridays 4:00–8:00 PM EST. Text the word “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200. Standard text messaging rates apply.
Chat: Available 7 days a week 3:00–9:00 PM EST at http://www.thetrevorproject.org
- Looking for a mental health professional for yourself or a friend?
Try SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Suicide Prevention Resources for Teens
- The Jed Foundation: Resources for Students
- Teen Mental Health
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.