To help sort through these issues, and to learn the warning signs that your teen might need help, it's important to understand the forces that often lead teens to suicide and to understand what you can do to help.
Although suicide is relatively rare among children, the rate of suicide attempts and suicide deaths increases tremendously during adolescence. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surpassed only by accidents and homicide.
The risk of suicide increases dramatically when kids and teens have access to firearms at home, and nearly 60% of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun. That's why it's important that any gun in your home be unloaded, locked, and kept out of the reach of children and teens. Ammunition should be stored and locked apart from the gun, and the keys for both should be kept in a different area from where you store your household keys. Always keep the keys to any firearms out of the reach of children and adolescents.
It's important to understand how suicide rates are different for boys and girls. Girls think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys, and girls tend to attempt suicide by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves. Boys die by suicide about four times as much as girls, perhaps because they tend to use more lethal methods, such as firearms, hanging, or jumping from heights.
What Kids Are at Risk for Suicide?
Now that you're a parent, you might not remember how it felt to be a teen, caught in that gray area between childhood and adulthood. Sure, it's a time of great possibility but it can also be a period of great confusion and anxiety. There's pressure to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly. There's the awakening of sexual feelings, a growing self-identity, and a need for autonomy that often conflicts with the rules and expectations set by others.
A teen with an adequate support network of friends, family, religious affiliations, peer groups, or extracurricular activities may have an outlet to deal with his or her everyday frustrations. But many teens don't feel like they have that, and they feel disconnected and isolated from family and friends. These teens are at increased risk for suicide.
Factors that increase the risk of suicide among teens include:
the presence of a psychological disorder, especially depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol and substance use (In fact, approximately 95% of people who die by suicide have a psychological disorder at the time of death.)
feelings of distress, irritability, or agitation
feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often accompany depression (A teen, for example, who experiences repeated failures at school, who is overwhelmed by violence at home, or who is isolated from peers is likely to experience such feelings.)
a previous suicide attempt
a family history of depression or suicide (Depressive illnesses may have a genetic component, so some teens may be predisposed to suffer major depression.)
having suffered physical abuse or sexual abuse
lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers, and feelings of social isolation
dealing with homosexuality in an unsupportive family or community or hostile school environment
Suicide among teens often occurs following a stressful life event, such as a perceived failure at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a major family conflict.
A teen who is thinking about suicide may:
talk about suicide or death in general
talk about "going away"
talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
pull away from friends or family
lose the desire to take part in favorite things or activities
have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or driving too fast, for example)
What Can Parents Do?
Most kids who commit or attempt suicide have given some type of warning to loved ones ahead of time. So as a parent, it's important that you are aware of some of the warning signs that your child may be suicidal, so that you can get your child the help that he or she needs.
Watch and Listen
If your child seems depressed and withdrawn, it's a good idea to watch him or her carefully. Poor grades, for example, may signal that your teen is withdrawing at school.
It's important that you keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love. If your child confides his or her concerns, it's important to show your child that you take those concerns seriously. Your child's fight with a friend may not seem like a big deal to you in the larger scheme of things, but for a teen, a situation like that can seem immense and consuming. It's important not to minimize or discount what your child is going through. This may increase his or her sense of hopelessness. Most people who attempt suicide have given some type of warning to loved ones.
If your child will not speak to you about how he or she is feeling, it's a good idea to suggest that your child talk to someone else who he or she feels comfortable confiding in. If your teen doesn't feel comfortable talking with you, you may want to suggest a more neutral person, such as another relative, a clergy member, a coach, a school counselor, or your child's doctor.
Some parents are reluctant to ask teens if they have been thinking about suicide or hurting themselves. Some parents fear that if they ask, they will plant the idea of suicide in their child's head.
It's always a good idea to ask. Asking a person if he or she is having thoughts about suicide can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to let the person know why you are asking. For instance, you might say: "I've noticed that you've been talking a lot about wanting to be dead. Have you been having thoughts about trying to kill yourself?"
If you learn that your child is thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Your child's doctor can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist, or your local hospital's department of psychiatry can provide a list of doctors in your area. Your local mental health association or county medical society can also provide references. In an emergency, you can call (800) SUICIDE or (800) 999-9999.
If your child is in an emergency situation, your local emergency room can conduct a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and refer you to the appropriate resources. If you are unsure about whether you should bring your child to the emergency room, you can contact your doctor or call (800) SUICIDE for help.
If you've scheduled an appointment for your child with a mental health professional, make sure to keep the appointment, even if your child says he or she is feeling better. Suicidal thoughts do tend to come and go; however, it is important that your child get help developing the skills necessary to decrease the likelihood that suicidal thoughts and behaviors will emerge again if a crisis arises in the future. If your child refuses to go to the appointment, discuss this with the mental health professional - you may consider attending the session and working with the clinician to make sure your child has access to the help he or she may need. The clinician might also be able to help you devise strategies to help your child want to get help.
Remember that any ongoing conflicts between a parent and child can fuel the fire for a teen who is feeling isolated, misunderstood, devalued, or suicidal. Get help to air family problems and resolve them in a constructive way. Also let the mental health professional know if there is a history of depression, substance abuse, family violence, or other stresses at home, such as an ongoing environment of criticism.
Coping With Loss
What should you do if someone your child knows, perhaps a friend or a classmate, has attempted or committed suicide? First, acknowledge your child's many emotions. Some teens say they feel guilty - especially those who felt they could have interpreted their friend's actions and words better. Others say they feel angry with the person who committed or attempted suicide for having done something so selfish. Still others say they feel no strong emotions. All of these emotions are appropriate; stress to your child that there is no right or wrong way to feel.
When someone attempts suicide and survives, people may be afraid of or uncomfortable about talking with him or her about it. Tell your child to resist this urge; this is a time when a person absolutely needs to feel connected to others.
Many schools address a student's suicide by calling in special counselors to talk with the students and help them deal with their feelings. If your child is having difficulty dealing with a friend or classmate's suicide, it's best for him or her to make use of these resources or to talk to you or another trusted adult.
If You've Lost a Child to Suicide
For parents, the death of a child is probably the most painful loss imaginable. For parents who've lost a child to suicide, the pain and grief may be intensified. Although these feelings may never completely go away, there are some things that survivors of suicide can do to begin the healing process.
Maintain contact with others. Suicide can be a very isolating experience for surviving family members because friends often don't know what to say and how to help. Seek out supportive people with whom you can talk about your child and your feelings. If you find that those around you are uncomfortable talking about your child, initiate the conversation and ask for their help.
Remember that your other family members are grieving, too, and that everyone expresses grief in their own way. Your other children, in particular, may try to deal with their pain alone so as not to burden you with additional worries. Be there for each other through the tears, anger, and silences, and, if necessary, seek help and support together.
Expect that anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays may be difficult. Important days and holidays often reawaken a sense of loss and anxiety. On those days, do what's best for your emotional needs, whether that means surrounding yourself with family and friends or planning a quiet day of reflection.
Understand that it's normal to feel guilty and to question how this could have happened, but it's also important to realize that you may never get the answers you are looking for. The healing that takes place over time comes from reaching a point of forgiveness - for both your child and yourself.
Counseling and support groups can play a tremendous role in helping you to realize you are not alone. For additional resources, click on the tab at the side of this article.
Updated and reviewed by: Matthew K. Nock, PhD
Date reviewed: June 2005
Originally reviewed by: David Sheslow, PhD, and Steven Dowshen, MD