The Troubled Teen: Recognizing and Reducing Suicidal Risk

By its very nature, adolescence is a time of volatile moods.  Hormonal changes, social pressure, and the move toward greater independence can make navigating the teenage years a minefield for both teens and parents alike.  But how can a parent know when a teen is experiencing more than just routine moodiness?  The alarming suicide rate for adolescents – it is the third leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds — makes it imperative that parents recognize the signs and symptoms of suicidal risk.

Risk Factors

While suicide and suicide attempts often seem unpredictable, there are some known risk factors associated with suicide among young people.  They include the following:

  • History of previous suicide attempt(s);
  • History of suicide by a family member or friend;
  • Family history of depression;
  • Presence of a mental disorder or substance abuse;
  • Presence of a physical illness;
  • Sexual orientation issues in an unsupportive environment;
  • History of abuse, bullying, or other mistreatment;
  • Social isolation or lack of social or parental support;
  • Recent loss; e.g., break-up with boyfriend/girlfriend, death of family member;
  • Access to means or methods of suicide.

Some risk factors are biologically or genetically based; e.g., up to 95% of people who commit suicide have a psychological disorder.  However, environmental risk factors can often be addressed directly.

Warning Signs

Regardless of underlying risk factors, teenagers are considered most at risk for a suicide attempt after a particularly stressful life event, such as a relationship break-up, death of a loved one, parental divorce, or school bullying.

If a teenager displays any of the following, particularly following a major stressor or trauma, it may be an indication of suicidal thoughts:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness;
  • Increased agitation, impulsiveness, aggression, or risk-taking;
  • Poor concentration;
  • Confused thoughts;
  • Frequent talk about death or suicide;
  • Hints about not being around much longer;
  • Giving away treasured possessions;
  • Avoiding family or friends;
  • Losing interest in school, sports, or favorite activities;
  • Significant changes in eating or sleeping habits;

Reducing Suicidal Risk

While all suicides cannot be prevented, parents can take practical steps to help reduce adolescent risk:

Be watchful.  Parents should keep a close eye on a teenager who has recently experienced a loss or major stressor.  They should watch for warning signs of depression, in particular. NOTE: Symptoms of depression in adolescents often include irritability, sleep disturbance, or withdrawal, rather than crying and sadness.

Increase communication.  Even if they don’t show it, adolescents need parents’ concern, love, and support. Parents should encourage teens to confide in them and show that they deserve their trust. Minimizing concerns, making fun, or avoiding serious discussions will only increase a teen’s frustration. If unwilling to talk with a parent, teens should be encouraged to talk with another relative or a trusted adult such as a school counselor, physician, or minister.

Parents should not be afraid to ask if a teen is having suicidal thoughts.  Asking the question will not plant the idea in someone’s head, but may open the door to honest communication. If a teenager directly expresses suicidal intent, the threat should be taken seriously. While only 1 in 25 suicide attempts by teens are successful, those odds are not ones with which any parents should be comfortable.

Seek professional assistance.  If warning signs are present and parental intervention is not sufficient, it’s time to reach out for professional help.  Assistance is available through mental health centers, doctors’ offices, or clinicians such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, or counselors.  Emergency assistance is also available by telephone; e.g., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Both professionals and parents can assist teens in learning important life skills such as problem solving.  The more effectively a teenager can navigate through conflicts and social problems, the more resilient he or she will become. School counselors or healthcare professionals can direct parents to relevant training materials.

Restrict access to means and methods.  Suicidal risk increases dramatically with access to reliable means and methods. Almost 60% of suicides in the U.S. are committed with a gun, so any guns in the home should be locked up and out of reach. Prescription and non-prescription medicine overdoses are also common, so parents should monitor all medications in the home.

By being more aware, practicing reasonable precautions and seeking professional help when needed, parents can significantly reduce suicidal risk in their teenagers.  One impulsive act can have fatal consequences, but one act of parental concern can have far ranging and positive effects on a loved one’s future.