By Jennifer McKay*, Psy.D., LPC
Each year, approximately 2 million U.S. adolescents attempt suicide.
It is estimated that approximately 2,000 youths, ages 10-19 years old, complete suicide each year.
In 2000, suicide was the third leading cause of death for 15—24 year olds in the U.S., behind unintentional injuries and homicide.
Teen suicide can be a frightening topic for anyone who has teenage children or spends time interacting with adolescents. Being able to talk about it becomes crucial when we consider that 90% of teens, when surveyed about whom they would first tell about wanting to commit suicide, stated they would speak to a friend. This startling statistic should provide encouragement to begin talking with the teenagers in our lives about suicide and learning how to handle this critical topic.
Because of its sensitive nature, the topic of suicide has myths about it that may actually hinder adults and teens alike from dealing with suicidal individuals in a helpful manner. One of the most common myths is that talking with someone about suicide will give them ideas or encourage them to actually commit suicide. In fact, the opposite tends to be true. By having someone openly and honestly address the topic, the individual contemplating suicide sees that someone is taking them seriously and responding to his/her need.
There are several suicide warning signs that adolescents who are suicidal tend to display. Having an awareness of these signs and keeping our eyes open for them can give adults and other teens the opportunity to address their concerns with the individual displaying them. They include:
Threats or talk about suicide
Extreme and sudden changes in behaviors—particularly with regard to appetite (increase or decrease), sleep (increase or decrease), grades, appearance, withdrawal from activities/relationships
The individual experiencing a significant loss (death in family, relationship break—up)
Giving away prized possessions
Tying up "loose ends"
Exhibiting aggressive and/or rebellious behavior, which is out of character for the individual
Engaging in high-risk or self—destructive behaviors
"Teens who attempt or commit suicide are choosing not to live. When young people have other choices, fewer will choose suicide. Suicide education and prevention programs give young people other choices."
—Nelson & Galas, p. 104
Adolescents who are suicidal need three things. First, they need someone who will talk openly and honestly with them, someone who will listen to their feelings, and someone who will get them the help that they need. If you or your teen notices someone displaying any of the above listed behaviors, talk with that individual. Second, ask questions and be direct. Saying something like, "Are you thinking about suicide" will not give them ideas. Hopefully, it will give them the courage to share what is going on inside them. Once you have asked the questions, just be there to listen. Take the adolescent's perception of the problem seriously and don't try to talk them out of it. Simply try to listen and understand. Finally, suggest that the teen get help and be willing to go with them to talk to someone who can help them with their suicidal thoughts.
If you are a parent of a teenager or interact with adolescents, talk with them about how to handle it when a friend or peer discloses suicidal thoughts or intentions. Emphasize that it is important to ask their friend if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts and to take their friend seriously. However, it is not the adolescent's responsibility to fix things or to keep this information secret. Stress to the teen the importance of telling another adult about his friend's suicidal thoughts, even if the suicidal individual asks him not to tell or the teen fears the loss of that relationship. Through your willingness to address this sensitive topic, teenagers have an additional source of support in their lives. That can make all the difference in the world.
For more information on teen suicide and ways to empower teens to help other teens who are struggling with suicide, the following book is a helpful resource:
The Power to Prevent Suicide: A Guide for Teens Helping Teens (2006) By Richard E. Nelson, Ph.D. & Judith C. Galas, Free Spirit Publishing.
For additional information:
For additional reading:
Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide By Kay Redfield Jamison, an internationally recognized authority on depressive illness and their treatment.
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