Teen suicide has reached epidemic proportions. Every day in the U.S. over 3,000 kids between grades nine and twelve attempt suicide. To say that suicide is not a problem for teens today is to deny the evidence before us.
But adults must do more than just be aware of the problem if we are to fight this epidemic. We must take action.
Fighting What we Cannot See
“How can we fight something we can’t even see?” you might ask. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. It isn’t always easy to see the signs of suicide among teens. Today’s young generation has learned to excel at hiding their feelings. As a result, adults cannot recognize a suicidal teen as easily today as they could twenty years ago.
“My daughter’s friend went from an A student to a suicidal kid, and we never noticed anything in between,” said a concerned parent.
Though the signs may be hidden, adults who take the time to look closely can still see that a child may be in trouble. In fact, four out of five kids who commit suicide have given clear warnings, That is if you know what signs you are looking for.
Warning Signs of Suicide
The majority of kids who attempt suicide have an undiagnosed mental condition, most often depression. Not all kids who have the symptoms of depression are depressed or will attempt suicide, however. But knowing the signs of depression may help concerned adults recognize when a teen is heading down the wrong path. Common signs of depression are:
- Pulling back from things they normally care about – friends, family, or activities
- A sense of sadness that does not go away
- Preoccupation or talk of death and dying
- Frequent complaints of stomach aches, headaches, tiredness, and other issues that can arise from emotional/mental stress
- Giving away of personal possessions (along the lines of, “I want you to have this.”)
- Sleeping more than normal or suffering from insomnia
- A change in appetite
- A decline in academic performance
For more information on the signs kids may give before attempting suicide, see this list presented by the Parent Resource Program.
Knowing When to Take Action
Becoming aware of the signs is the first step in helping kids who may be contemplating suicide – that is we must first know what to look for. When we see those potentially dangerous behaviors, we must then decide if they warrant concern. After all, many of the warning signs teens give are often typical of teenagers in general. And just because a young person shows one or more signs of suicide does not mean that they are suicidal. So how can adults know the difference?
First, consider what is out of character for your teen. Behavior changes are more of an indicator than the existence of the behaviors to begin with. Do you have an A student who is suddenly doing poorly in school? Is your child sleeping more than they used to, or do they suddenly have insomnia? A change in behavior or character is more of a flag than a teen who has always shown particular traits, regardless of what those traits are.
Once you see changes in your child, ask yourself how long those changes have gone on. Behaviors that last more than two weeks are something concerned adults should take note of. Everyone struggles at times or fights bouts of depression, but when teens experience these feelings for a prolonged length of time, this is a sign that things may not be well. Professionals generally agree that signs of depression (such as those listed above) that last two weeks or more may be indicators of a deeper problem in the life of a teen and should be addressed.
Another indicator that your child may need help is when multiple signs appear at the same time. An A student can suddenly begin failing a class for many reasons that have nothing to do with suicidal ideation. But if that failure comes along with a change in her eating behaviors and a pervasive sadness as well, it may be time for a serious conversation with your child.
What Can Adults Do?
When faced with the statistics and the uncertainty of recognizing the signs, adults can feel discouraged. But that does not mean adults lack power. In fact, adults have plenty of ways to be proactive when it comes to suicide prevention.
First off, talk to your kids. It is important to have some kind of connection with your child on a daily basis. For some families with strained relationships, this conversation may not get any deeper than what the weather looks like for tomorrow. But even that is better than no conversation with your kids at all.
A great way to promote conversation between you and your teen is to ask questions. Not so many that your teen gets frustrated and shuts down, but questions that allow them to express their ideas and opinions. It’s also important that adults listen to their kids whenever they are willing to talk, even if the conversation is about Fortnite or their school’s terrible lunches. When adults show they care about the little things, kids are more likely to share about the big things.
Adults who care will also find that talking to your child’s school is helpful. Ask what programs they have in place for kids who may be in need, including counseling. Push suicide prevention education for all students. Find out what SEL (Social Emotional Learning) programs the school has in place, such as BASE Education, which offers therapeutic innovation for all students through educational technology. If the school lacks SEL resources, talk to the principal and school board until they get appropriate SEL strategies in place.
Finally, know what resources are out there in the bigger world. Resources abound for the parent who wants to get help for their teen (as well as for the teen who wants direct help). Get involved in suicide prevention organizations at the local or national level. Have numbers handy for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth (1-866-488-7386). Online resources also abound, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, and the Youth Suicide Prevention Program.
Get involved with local efforts to raise awareness and provide resources for teens who are thinking about suicide. And make opportunities to talk about it if someone at your teen’s school has died due to suicide. This is one bridge no parent wants their kids to jump off of after a friend.
The time for action is now.
Adults today cannot allow themselves to be complacent about teen suicide. Finding comfort in the idea that “it will never happen to my child” is simply to live in denial. Eighty percent of kids who attempt suicide have given signs that they need to help. If we adults come together to notice these signs and take action, we can make a difference in the lives of 2500 kids every day! And as little as any of us wants to think about it, one of those 2500 kids just might be our own.