It’s a difficult subject to come to terms with, but the statistics are all too clear. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10-24. More than 5,000 American kids from grades 7-12 attempt suicide each day.
Surviving one’s teenage years can be a challenge in the best of circumstances. Social pressures, the physical and emotional transformation into adulthood - it’s an intense phase of one’s life and often fraught with inner turmoil.
And although many kids will never develop suicidal thoughts or behavior, it’s quite common for children to at least fantasize about suicide at one time or another when they are growing up.
But for some children, these thoughts become more than an idle fantasy. That’s why it’s important to recognize the risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of suicide as well as the warning signs that can indicate a problem.
There are several factors involved in teen suicide, but commonly the children who attempt or actually die by suicide are victims of either a psychiatric disorder, such as depression, or a substance abuse problem. Having one or both of those factors involved makes it even more difficult to manage the other daily stresses of teenage reality, so suicide can appear to be the solution to what seem to be insurmountable problem - even though the problems may, in fact, be only temporary.
Other factors include a family history of suicide, a family history of depression or other mood disorders, a history of violence or abuse. Losing a family member, witnessing a breakup in the family such as divorce, witnessing someone else’s suicide, a feeling of social isolation, becoming pregnant - all these can be risk factors. A combination of any of these factors with drug or alcohol abuse can easily lead to a dangerous situation. Recent studies suggest that the use of antidepressants may also be a contributing factor in teen suicides, but more research is needed on the subject.
Social pressures, dealing with issues such as obesity or being gay, the presence of bullies online and offline, scholastic stresses, relationships - all these can be major factors in making a teen’s life feel overwhelmingly traumatic.
Although teens are often very careful to hide their real feelings, or perhaps feel unable to express them, the statistics tell us that four out of five teens who attempt suicide give clear warning signs before they do so. Learning how to recognize these signs could save a life.
Warning signs include talking about suicide - a child may say something like: “I just want to die,” or “I won’t be your problem for long.” All threats or mentions of suicide should be taken seriously.
Other signs include writing or talking about death, extreme mood swings, social withdrawal, changes in eating habits or sleeping patterns, aggressive or erratic behavior, giving away of possessions.
What Can Parents Do?
If your child is subject to any of the risk factors or displays any of the warning signs, there are some positive steps you can take.
First, you should not be afraid to talk to your child. In fact, the experts say that talking to a teen about suicide decreases the likelihood that he or she will attempt it. Saying the word “suicide” will not plant the thought in a child’s mind, don’t worry. The main thing is that they know that you will listen and that it’s okay to talk about their problems. Share your own feelings about sadness, rejection or disappointment - let them know everyone has these issues.
If your child seems depressed or anxious, pay attention. Communication is important at home, but a child may also need to talk to a therapist. Make sure your teen knows that he or she has a support system.
Encourage physical activity and interaction with others. Try to gently help reverse any tendencies towards isolation.
Many parents use some sort of monitoring software on their children’s smartphones or tablets. This can be a very effective means of spotting problems in a child’s daily life before they become serious.
Make sure all firearms, alcohol and medications are stored safely out of reach. Making the means of self-harm less available is an important prevention step.
Suicide is preventable. Watch for the signs and take action if you think there is a problem. Seek out help and show your child that you care and want to help.