Every day, about 2,740 people die by suicide, that is approximately 1 every 40 seconds. For every youth death by suicide you hear about, approximately 25 suicide attempts were made. There is an epidemic going on and we aren’t even talking about it as a society! We know that families, schools, peer groups, and communities are dramatically impacted when young people engage in suicidal behavior. We want to stop this epidemic and helping you prevent these tragedies is one of those steps.
Parents, friends, and educators can make a difference by recognizing warning signs, identifying risk factors, promoting protective factors, and knowing how to talk to youth and teens along with seeking mental health assistance. You can empower yourself and your teen by following these steps.
The Facts and Nothing But The Facts
Information is power and the internet is full of misinformation, too much of which about suicide can have tragic consequences. Separating myth from fact can empower you to help your teen in distress.
MYTH–Suicide is not a problem and definitely not in youth.
FACT –Suicide is a massive problem affecting youth, it is the 2nd leading cause of death among 10-21 year olds
MYTH–Talking to teens about suicide makes them likely to consider it & may lead to suicide
FACT –Addressing the topic of suicide in a caring, empathetic, and nonjudgmental way show that you are taking your child seriously and responding to their emotional pain. It will give them the opportunity to express thoughts and feelings they may have been keeping secret.
MYTH–Suicidal teens are overreacting to life events
FACT –Problems that may not seem like a big deal to one person, particularly adults, may be causing a great deal of distress for the suicidal teen. We have to remember that perceived crises are just as concerning and predictive of suicidal behavior as actual crises.
MYTH–Only a professional can identify a child at risk for suicidal behavior
FACT –Parents, friends, and educators are often the first to recognize warning signs and most able to intervene in a loving way.
MYTH–Suicides happen without warning
FACT –Most teens who attempt or die by suicide have communicated their distress or plans to at least one other person. These communications are not always direct, so it is important to know some of the key warning signs of suicide.
Recognize The Warning Signs
Studies show that 5 out of 6 teen suicide attempts are preceded by clear warning signs, so make sure that you know them. Keep in mind that a warning sign does not mean a child will attempt suicide, but DO NOT ignore the warning signs. Respond to the child immediately with loving concern. Don’t dismiss a threat as a cry for attention! When it comes to this, you can’t afford to be wrong.
1. Talking about suicide: Perhaps the biggest and most obvious warning sign is when a person talks about suicide. They may casually bring up the topic, but usually the individual may talk about wanting to take their own life. The problem with this is that many people do not take this talk very seriously or think it’s just a phase that will eventually pass. If someone brings up suicide and/or suggests that they may take their own life, it must be taken very seriously.
2. Untreated depression: If a person is clinically depressed, they may be prone to crying spells, have difficulty getting out of bed, problems sleeping and eating, and feel hopeless about their situation. When a person’s depression is untreated, they are in a state of pain and basically shut down. Their thinking becomes clouded by the depression that they are experiencing and they may feel as though life is pointless due to the way that they feel.
3. Giving away possessions: One of the most obvious warning signs is when a depressed individual gives away all of their possessions. Uneducated people may be confused as to why a person would give away their property without reason. Usually family and/or close friends will take note of a person giving all of their valuable property away. When they confront the person, they may say that they won’t need it anymore, etc. Giving things away can be one of the key signs that a person is planning on following through with taking their life.
4. Saying “goodbye”: In many cases, a person will visit family and/or other close friends prior to following through with the act to say “goodbye.” They want to tie up loose ends and let the people that are close to them know that they care about them a lot. Sometimes it may not seem like a “goodbye,” rather it may seem as though the person is spending some time with everyone that is important to them. Watch out for this type of behavior –the person will generally pursue most immediate family and friends for some closure. Keep in mind that saying “goodbye” could also be over the phone or via text message.
5. Suicide notes: An extremely obvious warning sign is that of a suicide note. In this note a person may write about a variety of topics including: how much they will miss their family, that they love their friends, the pain that they are dealing with, and in some cases, why they must end their life. If you find a suicide note, be sure to take it very seriously because the person may follow through with the act. Get the person some sort of help and if they are unwilling, you may need to call 911 with the note in hand.
6. Alcohol & drugs: In many cases when a person is suicidal, they may turn to abusing alcohol or other drugs as a way to escape these feelings. Although they may find temporary relief from their pain as a result of their substance use, in many cases alcohol and drugs make the situation worse. Many times the person ends up increasingly depressed following the usage of substances. It should also be noted that when a person is serious about following through with the act of suicide, they may drink, pop pills, etc. so that they can build up the courage follow through with it. Be on the lookout for the person using alcohol, drugs, and/or both more frequently to the point of abuse –this is a warning sign.
7. Change to “calm” demeanor: Often leading up to a suicide, a person will exhibit a change in mood from being very sad to a general calmness and/or in some cases, appearing happy. If you notice that a person is all of a sudden very calm and was previously extremely depressed, this may be a red flag. The calmness and/or happier appearance is generally due the person being convinced that they are going to follow through with the act.
8. Reckless behavior: When a person has decided to take their own life, they may engage in more reckless behavior and decision making. For example, they may speed while driving, drive through red lights, try illicit drugs, have unprotected sex, shoplifting, etc. This reckless behavior is usually due to the person not caring about their life anymore. In some cases, this behavior is easily noticed by others close to the individual who is suicidal. If you notice someone acting reckless, especially someone who was previously more reserved, it may be warning sign.
9. Researching suicide methods: You may notice on the person’s internet browser history that they have been researching painless suicide methods and/or how to kill themselves. If you see this in the person’s search history, take it very seriously and assume that they are going to follow through with the act. In this case, the person needs some sort of immediate help and intervention to help them get out of the pain that they are in. Help guide the person by getting them in for help and if they refuse, call the police.
10. Buying suicide materials: If you catch someone who is severely depressed and/or suicidal purchasing materials to help them follow through with the act, this needs to be addressed. For example, the person may be visiting pawn shops or auctions looking to buy a gun. They may also be buying things like rope, pills, knives, razors, etc. online or at general stores. Purchasing materials shows that the person is ready to go through with the act, and now has the means to carry the act out.
11. Creating a Will: A person who has plans of suicide may take the steps to create a will so that their loved ones get their possessions when they pass. Additionally if a person already has a will, they may make some last-minute revisions to it before following through with the act. If you notice any preoccupation with the creation of a will accompanied by the person giving away prized possessions, this could be a warning sign.
12. Social withdrawal or isolation: Another very common warning sign leading up to suicide is that of social withdrawal. Many people isolate themselves from friends, colleagues, and other family members. This increased social withdrawal can actually make the person more depressed and suicidal than they already are. Prior to committing suicide, a person may gradually withdraw from friendships, social commitments, and extracurricular or work related functions. If you notice someone –(especially someone who was previously very involved) –withdrawing from these functions, this could be another indication that the person is suicidal.
13. Talking about being a burden: If you notice someone talking about being a “burden” to others including friends, family, etc. –this could indicate that they feel as if they aren’t wanted. Feelings of being a burden may make the person feel like an outcast and may contribute to depression and/or suicidal ideation. When someone frequently says that they are a burden and/or all that they do is cause problems for others, this can be a warning sign.
14. Feeling hopeless: When someone says that they are in a hopeless situation or that they have no hope for their future, this could suggest suicide as well. Besides feeling hopeless to change their situation, the person may describe themselves as being “helpless” and/or “worthless.” Anytime someone lacks hope to improve their current situation or future and thinks that they are worthless, this signifies that they need some sort of help. If a person feels this way, especially for a long period of time, they may end up turning to suicide.
15. Preoccupation with death: Individuals who are preoccupied with death and/or think about it often may be considering suicide. You may notice a person openly talking about death, researching it, and considering the afterlife. Although death can be a topic of normal conversation, the preoccupation with it is what could suggest that a person may be suicidal.
16. Previous suicide attempt: It is estimated that between 20% and 50% of people who take their own life had previously attempted suicide. If someone you know has previously attempted suicide and is acting suicidal, take it very seriously. Statistics show that if a person has tried it once, they are more likely to try it again in the future. If you suspect that something may be in the works, talk to the person and listen to what’s on their mind.
Other warning signs of suicide include:
• Commentary such as “I want to die” – If you hear anyone say things like “I wish I was never born,” “I wish I was dead,” or “I don’t want to be here anymore,” they are probably thinking of suicide. Keep this in mind and either help the person yourself or get them some sort of help.
• Rage / revenge seeking – In some cases a person may be motivated by rage or threaten to take their life as some sort of revenge. Although most cases of suicide involve depression, there are cases involving anger and rage.
• Losing interest in life – People who lose interest in life and/or previously important things are likely already going through depression. If the person is not able to regain some sort of interest, they may be thinking of suicide.
Know the Risk Factors
Recognize that certain situations and conditions that are associated with an increased risk of suicide.
• Previous suicide attempt(s) –this is the #1 risk factor
• Mental health disorders (depression, anxiety)
• Alcohol and other substance abuse
• Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, loneliness, worthlessness, low self-esteem
• Loss of interest in friends, hobbies, or activities previously enjoyed
• Aggressive behavior
• Bullying or being a bully at school or in social settings
• Disruptive behavior, including disciplinary problems at school or at home
• High risk behaviors (drinking and driving, poor decision-making)
• Recent/serious loss (death, divorce, separation, broken romantic relationship,)
• Family history of suicide
• Family violence (domestic violence, child abuse or neglect)
• Sexual orientation and identity confusion (lack of support or bullying during the coming out
• Access to lethal means like firearms, pills, knives or illegal drugs
• Stigma associated with seeking mental health services
• Barriers to accessing mental health services (lack of bilingual service providers, unreliable
transportation, financial costs)
Know the Protective Factors
These factors have been shown to have protective effects against teen suicide:
• Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and handling problems in a nonviolent way
• Strong connections to family, friends, and community support
• Restricted from lethal means of suicide
• Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self-preservation
• Easy access to services
• Support through ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
Take Preventative Measures
You are not powerless, you can guard your teen against the possibility of suicide.
• Interact with your teen positively (give consistent feedback, compliments for good work.)
• Increase his/her involvement in positive activities (promote involvement in clubs/sports)
• Appropriately monitor your teen’s whereabouts and communications (texting, Facebook, Twitter) with the goal of promoting safety
• Be aware of your teen’s social environment (friends, teammates, coaches) and communicate regularly with other parents in your community.
• Communicate regularly with your teen’s teachers to ensure safety at school
• Talk with your teen about your concerns; ask him/her directly about suicidal thoughts
• Address your concerns with other adults in your child’s life (teachers, coaches, family)
• Discuss your concerns with his/her pediatrician to seek mental health referrals
Talk To Your Youth/Teen About Suicide
Talking to your teen about a topic like suicide can seem almost impossible. Have this important discussion with your teen by using these tips.
• Talk in a calm, non-accusatory manner
• Express loving concern
• Convey how important he/she is to you
• Focus on your concern for your teen’s well-being and health
• Make “I” statements to convey you understand the stressors he/she may be experiencing
• Encourage professional help-seeking behaviors (locate appropriate resources)
• Reassure your adolescent that seeking services can change his/her outlook
Seek Mental Health Services For Assistance
Mental health professionals can be essential partners in teen suicide prevention.
a) Take appropriate action to protect your child
• If you feel that something is “just not right”
• If you notice warning signs
• If you recognize your child has many of the risk factors and few of the protective factors listed above
b) Find a mental health provider who has experience with youth suicide
• Choose a mental health provider with whom your child and you are comfortable
• Participate actively in your child’s therapy
c) If danger is imminent, call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room
Let’s work together to stop this epidemic and keep more than our youths dreams alive. For more information please see DefeatSuicide.com.
Want to partner with TW Foundation in the fight against youth and teen suicide? Your donations are needed to help us reach our mission. You can be part of helping us, click here.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.