Suicide Prevention in Teenagers

It is National Suicide Awareness Month, and we’d like to note that it has been a tough time for us all these past years, and even more so for our teenagers. Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and brain development, so it’s extra tough for them as their bodies and brains are in this season of change.

Suicide rates in the United States have been on the rise for the last decade in adults and teens alike. According to the CDC, it is the 2nd leading cause of death in adolescents (ages 15-19). This rapid increase has only been exacerbated by the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. For adolescents aged 12-17 in 2020, emergency room visits that were mental health-related increased by 31% compared to 2019 (source).

This information is troubling for parents and educators alike. The best thing we can do for our teens is to equip ourselves with the tools to see the signs, destigmatize conversations about mental health, and model well-being.

A Myth About Suicide

It’s a common misconception that talking about suicide will encourage suicidal ideation or an attempt. Talking about mental health and/or suicide provides a space to communicate feelings. Creating a safe space to talk about feelings makes it so someone doesn’t have to be alone in what they’re feeling. In these times of increased isolation, it’s important to create these safe spaces. One watch out is that talking about suicide should be carefully managed. Using the resources below as a guideline will help keep the conversation constructive.

Signs of Suicidal Ideation

This list of warning signs comes from the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health Office of Suicide Prevention. Here you can find more myths and facts as well.

The list below is not exhaustive, but can be helpful signs:

• The recent suicide, or death by other means, of a friend or relative.

• Previous suicide attempts.

• Preoccupation with themes of death or expressing suicidal thoughts.

• Depression, conduct disorder, and problems with adjustment such as substance abuse, particularly when two or more of these are present.

• Giving away prized possessions/ making a will or other final arrangements.

• Major changes in sleep patterns – too much or too little.

• Sudden and extreme changes in eating habits/ losing or gaining weight.

• Withdrawal from friends/ family or other major behavioral changes.

• Dropping out of group activities.

• Personality changes such as nervousness, outbursts of anger, impulsive or reckless behavior, or apathy about appearance or health.

• Frequent irritability or unexplained crying.

• Lingering expressions of unworthiness or failure.

• Lack of interest in the future.

• A sudden lifting of spirits, when there have been other indicators, may point to a decision to end the pain of life through suicide.

More Than “How Are You?”

For those that are struggling with their mental health, the question of “how are you” may be too overwhelming to answer honestly. It might be okay for some, but if you’re looking to check-in, here are some questions and ways to connect:

• What support do you need from me?

• What has been energizing you this week? What has been draining you this week?

• What has been a strength this week? What about a challenge?

• Express gratitude or give a compliment

• Ask if they want to get coffee or share a meal

• Share something positive that made you think of them

• What’s something you’re grateful for today?

If you are worried about suicidal ideation, it is better to be more direct. The resources below have helpful tools to have those conversations.

Resources

Click on any of the headers below to visit the resources described.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

This page provides suicide prevention information, risk factors, and information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For their site specifically about Disaster Distress, click here.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

This site has statistics and resources about risk and protective factors, prevention strategies, and more.

Crisis Text Line

At any time, you can text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. They also have resources on their site for various subjects related to mental health.

Columbia Suicide Severity Scale and Assessment

Use this document to ask questions of your teen to assess their risk of suicide.

Ask for Help

Mental health is incredibly important while also being nuanced. Remember that you are not alone in supporting your teen. If you’re concerned about their behavior, reach out to those in your community to see if they’re seeing the same thing. It is not our job to diagnose our teens; we can just assess the behavior we see and talk about it without shame. Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Counselors are trained for these exact times. Click here to use Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” tool.

Lastly, check-in with yourself. How have you been taking care of yourself and your mental health? Use the questions or tools above as a self-reflection. How we take care of ourselves is modeled for our children and students, whether we know it or not. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and is an incredible thing to model to our teens.

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