What Parents Need to Know About Teen Suicide
Information presented in this article may be triggering to some people. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
There are many common misconceptions about suicide that prevent parents from talking to teens or recognizing just how serious of a problem suicide can be among teens.
By debunking these seven common teen suicide myths and revealing the facts, you can hopefully be better prepared to edcate your teen, recognize the warning signs, and get help for your teen before it’s too late.
Myth: Teens Who Threaten Suicide Are Just Looking for Attention
Teens usually excel at hiding problems, especially from adults. A teen who is talking about suicide needs to be listened to carefully and taken seriously.
If your teen mentions suicide, take it very seriously and seek professional help immediately.
Myth: Asking Teens If They Think About Suicide Increases Their Risk
Sometimes parents fear that bringing up the subject of suicide will somehow plant the seed. But asking direct questions about suicide won’t compel your teen to kill themselves. But if your teen is having any suicidal thoughts, they will feel likely relieved by your direct and honest questions.
Myth: Teens Who Fail in Completing Suicide Weren’t Serious
A teen who attempts suicide is trying to stop the pain and suffering. Teens who make an attempt are at much higher risk of trying again. Their second attempts are much more likely to be lethal.
Myth: Teens Who Commit Suicide Always Act Sad Beforehand
Depression in teenagers looks different from depression in adults. Teens with depression frequently don’t appear sad. They may be irritable or withdrawn and might even seem happy at times. Suicide may be a rather sudden response to a major stressful event.
Myth: Teens Who Commit Suicide Spend a Lot of Time Planning It
The decision to commit suicide may be planned—but it could also be somewhat of an impulsive one. Suicide may feel like the best way to escape the pain. A teen who has been humiliated, rejected, or subjected to bullying, for example, may think suicide is the only way out.
Myth: Suicide Among Teens Is Rare
More teens die from suicide than cancer, pneumonia, influenza, chronic lung disease, heart disease, AIDS, and birth defects combined. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people.
Most people aren’t aware that it such a common problem. Suicides don’t usually make the news and many families keep a teen’s suicide as private as possible.
Teens who struggle with mental illness like depression and those who abuse substances are at the highest risk of taking their own life.
Myth: A Suicide Plan Doesn’t Put the Teen at Risk of Following Through
A teen with a specific plan for how and when to commit suicide is a teen in serious trouble. When a mental health professional assesses a teen for suicide risk, meeting this criterion means the teen is potentially in immediate danger and steps need to be taken to ensure safety.
Ways Parents Can Help
Although many parents talk to their kids about the dangers of using alcohol or drugs or the risks of meeting strangers online, few parents ever talk to their teens about suicide.
Mental health problems and suicide can be an uncomfortable subject to broach—especially when you aren’t sure what to say. But talking about it could save your teen’s life.
Check-in with your child regularly, beyond just day-to-day tasks like doing homework, to find out how they are feeling. You can simply ask: “How are you doing?” or “How is everything going at school?” Kids might open up as you’re in the car, shuffling back and forth to after-school activities.
Educate Yourself About Suicide
Learning about and understanding suicide will enable you to be on the lookout for possible signs your teen may be at risk. It will also help you hold meaningful conversations with your teen on the subject.
This includes understanding the risks factors and warning signs of suicide in teens, including:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Dramatic mood changes
- Uncontrolled anger or rage
- Feelings of hopelessness, purposelessness, or being trapped
- Reckless or impulsive behavior or misuse of drugs or alcohol
- Suicidal ideation or preoccupation with death (e.g., in music, literature, drawings)
Start a Conversation Today
Strike up a conversation with your teen about mental health issues, stress, and suicide. You might start by mentioning a story you read about the news or a TV show that you watched on the topic.
You might also ask questions like, “Does anyone at your school ever talk about suicide?” or “Does your school teach you about mental health issues?”
Don’t be afraid to steer the conversation toward your child’s mental health. If you have concerns that your teen may be contemplating suicide, or your teen is struggling with mental health issues or a recent stressful event, you might say, “It seems like you’ve been dealing with a lot lately. Does it ever get so tough that you think about ending your life?” notes the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
Ask if they are experiencing any symptoms like trouble sleeping, feelings of hopelessness, or feeling trapped or overwhelmed. Reinforce the fact that you are always there to listen to and support them and that it’s OK to seek help. It’s also essential to talk to your child’s doctor immediately. A pediatrician may refer your teen to a mental health professional.
Set a Healthy Example
Teaching and modeling healthy habits for mental health is yet another way parents can help protect their teens from suicide. Do your best to talk openly about feelings, emotions, and challenges. This will help them understand that it’s OK to struggle and that “life is messy and challenging for everyone,” says the AFSP.
If you’re struggling with your own mental health, set a good example by practicing physical and mental self-care, managing stress in a healthful way, and seeking therapy. Doing your part to take away the stigma of mental illness treatment will go a long way toward dispelling any harmful myths and keeping your teen safe.