How to Identify Suicide Risks: A Prevention Guide for Parents
Although it can be difficult to talk about, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people. This phenomenon is becoming increasingly prevalent, with the national suicide rates for young people between the ages of 10 and 24 increasing 57.4% between 2007 and 2018.
What You’ll Learn
A 2021 release from the surgeon general’s office stated that from 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%; suicidal ideation increased by 36%; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%.
If they don’t get the proper treatment and support, children going through particularly difficult times can head down a path toward suicidal ideation (thinking about taking their own life), a suicide attempt (trying to take their own life without success), or death by suicide.
The increase in suicide rates has occurred as the use of the internet, particularly social media, has skyrocketed. Several studies have shown a connection between cyberbullying and increased suicide risk. One study reported that experiencing cyberbullying doubled a child’s risk of committing suicide.
Certain websites also provide pro-suicide messaging and information about how to self-harm and create a plan to commit suicide.
Losing anyone, particularly a child, to suicide is a tragedy. Being aware of the warning signs, causes, and steps you can take to prevent suicide can give you the tools you need to protect your child’s health and get them help when they need it most.
Warning Signs of Suicide in Children and Teens
Being aware of the warning signs can help you better understand how your child may be feeling and decide when it’s time to get outside help. Many of the warning signs associated with suicide are similar to the symptoms of depression.
Your child may be at risk if they exhibit any of the following warning signs:
- Not sleeping or sleeping all of the time
- Sudden changes in eating patterns
- Complaints of stomachaches, headaches, or fatigue
- Lack of interest, energy, or motivation
- Being quick to irritability, anger, or violence
- Not wanting to see friends or family
- Poor concentration, focus, or memory
- Falling grades or skipping school
- Lacking a sense of purpose in life
- Dramatic changes in personality or appearance
- Reckless, risky, or bizarre behavior
- Alcohol or drug use
- Delusions or hallucinations
- Deep feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, or anger
Not all children who experience depression also experience suicidal thoughts. However, there are certain warning signs that more clearly point toward your child being a suicide risk:
- Feelings of helplessness or being trapped
- Thinking that nothing will ever change or get better
- References to hopelessness, guns, or death (through music, writing, drawing, etc.)
- Talking about “going away,” or “not being here for very long,” or making statements like, “I won’t be a problem anymore,” or “if anything happens to me…”
- Any comments about death or dying
- Sudden changes in demeanor, like becoming cheerful after a period of depression
- Threatening self-harm or suicide (whether seriously or as a joke)
- Giving away or getting rid of valuable possessions
- Writing suicide notes
- Planning for ways to take their life, such as trying to find pills or a gun
If you notice any of these warning signs, you should intervene and seek immediate medical help.
Are some teens more at risk than others?
Certain factors can increase the risk of suicide and suicidal ideation. While these factors don’t necessarily always lead to suicide, it’s important to be aware of the extra strain and difficulty they may place on your child.
Factors that may increase the risk of suicide include:
- Depression and other mental disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Impulsive behaviors
- Previous suicide attempts
- History of self-harming
- Physical illnesses
- Family history of suicide, depression, or other mental illnesses
- Family violence, including physical abuse or sexual abuse
- Exposure to suicidal behavior, whether through a family member, friend, celebrity, or even fictional story
Certain circumstances can also put your child at risk. Adolescence is difficult for every child, but dealing with particularly stressful and painful situations can lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. Circumstances that may increase the risk of suicide include:
- Changes in family life, such as divorce
- Moving to a new town (new school, new friends, etc.)
- Losses, such as the death of a parent or sibling
- Bullying, including cyberbullying
- Extreme stress (around a big test, important game, college applications, etc.)
- A sense of failure in school, relationships, or other areas
- Coping with their identity (like gender or sexuality) in an unsupportive or hostile family, community, or school environment
Being aware of how these outside factors might be contributing to your child’s depression can help you mediate their effects.
Can depression lead to suicidal behaviors?
Yes, having depression increases a person’s suicide risk. The majority of people who exhibit the symptoms of depression don’t die by suicide. However, about 2% of people who have undergone outpatient treatment for depression die by suicide. This number doubles for those who have been treated in an inpatient hospital setting.
Between 2011 and 2015, youth psychiatric visits to emergency departments for depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges increased by 28%.
When left untreated or treated improperly, depression is one of the leading causes and risk factors of suicide. Symptoms of depression include:
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities previously enjoyed
Sudden changes in appetite, weight, and sleep patterns
Difficulties in school (worsening grades, skipping classes)
Physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue
Any of these behaviors can be precursors to suicidal ideation or attempts and should be taken seriously.
Research from the last ten years shows many connections between social media use and depression. A 2015 survey shows a connection between Facebook use, envy, and depression. A 2019 study found a correlation between checking Facebook late at night and feelings of depression and unhappiness.
A study performed by the University of Pennsylvania in 2018 called “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression” suggests just that: limiting time on social media leads to less unhappiness and depression.
Social Media’s Impact on Teen Suicide Risk
As the second leading cause of death in children between the ages of 10 and 24, it’s important to understand all of the possible factors that contribute to suicide. Although proving causality would require more in-depth studies, many independent studies have investigated the connection between social media use and suicide attempts.
In the right settings, social media and online networking sites can be places of community and support for children struggling with depression, but there’s a much darker side that parents need to be aware of.
Seven reviewed studies have found a relationship between increased screen time and worsening mental health. If your child is already depressed, spending a lot of time on the internet holds the possibility of negative “rabbit holes” driven by algorithms that push content that normalizes self-harm, discourages seeking help, and glorifies depression.
Another study from 2018 shows a connection between victims of cyberbullying and behaviors of self-harm and suicide. This nontraditional form of peer aggression can be challenging for adults to monitor and is more difficult for children to deal with on their own using learned conflict resolution techniques.
How a parent chooses to limit and monitor their child’s social media usage will be different for every family, but it’s an important step you can take to help prevent depression and suicide from affecting your child.
What should you do if you suspect your teen is suicidal?
If you see any of the warning signs and suspect your child may be suicidal, you must take it seriously. Even if your child claims to be only joking and not planning to act, even considering suicide can put them at risk to one day follow through.
To help support your child, you must provide them with an outlet for communication. When you speak to them, try to talk openly and express your concern for their health and safety.
If they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, see if you can open a line of communication between another trusted adult in their lives, like a relative, mentor, counselor, or doctor.
If your child has expressed suicidal ideation or has tried to commit suicide, they need immediate medical help, starting with a physical and mental evaluation. Your child’s treatment plan will depend on their symptoms, age, health, medical history, and whether they’re an immediate danger to themselves.
Potential treatment options include:
- Inpatient treatment
- Individual or family therapy
If your child is a risk to themselves, you must keep your home safe and create barriers to potential acts of suicide. Don’t leave your child alone, and remove any potential objects they might use to hurt themselves, including knives, guns, or medications.
Here are some suicide hotlines you can call for help:
Dealing with the topic of suicide can be difficult for both you and your child, so don’t hesitate to ask for support.
Talking to Your Child About Depression and Suicide
Even though it may be difficult, speaking openly and honestly can help your child have the vocabulary needed to talk about depression and suicide. When you talk to them, don’t be afraid to use the word “suicide.” Speaking around the problem can be confusing, and it helps to be as specific and clear as possible.
When you have a conversation with your child about their thoughts, fears, concerns, or emotions, it’s important that they feel heard and understood. Instead of making them feel guilty for their feelings or their thoughts of suicide, focus on letting them know how much you love them. Reassure them that you will support them through this difficult time and get them the help they need to start to feel better.
Remember, suicide is never anyone’s fault. It may help to talk about how different factors in their life play a part in their mental health. Children aged 8–10 spend about six hours a day in front of screens, which increases to nine hours for kids aged 11–14.
Discuss how screen time can be isolating and how social media use can lead to anxiety and depression. Giving your child the information they need to understand the dangers of cyberbullying and the unrealistic expectations created by social media can help give them a toolkit to protect their health and sense of self.
No matter what, keep your conversation a dialogue. If you want your child to listen to you, make sure you are also actively listening to them.
Preventing Teen Suicide
Being aware of the warning signs of suicide and promoting a healthy lifestyle can help prevent your child from becoming at risk for suicide. In addition to open communication, here are some steps you can take to help keep your child safe:
Be Engaged in Your Child’s Life
Staying actively involved with your child’s life and being aware of their personality, activities, and struggles can help you better discern if any worrisome changes are occurring. Watching for the signs and symptoms of depression and suicidal tendencies will help you know how your child is doing and when they may need help.
Encourage Them to Get Involved
Helping your child get involved with activities outside of school can benefit their mental and social health. Not only will they have something to look forward to that inspires them and gives them a sense of accomplishment, but they’ll also have opportunities to socialize with like-minded peers and spend time with mentors and role models.
Staying busy with activities can also help limit their time on the internet and social media without you having to set boundaries on their screen time.
Maintaining a balanced lifestyle will help keep your child healthy and happy. Take the time to explain healthy habits, like getting a good night’s sleep, eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and limiting time spent in front of screens and on social media.
Setting a good example and encouraging your children to find healthy habits that will support their physical health can help them feel happier, more positive, and more in control of their life.
Monitor Social Media Use
For kids today, social media may seem like the most important way to connect with today’s culture and their peers. Educating your children on how social media affects their mental health and limiting their time on online networking sites can help decrease their risk of depression.
If you believe your child’s social media use may have contributed to their depression or suicidal thoughts and behaviors, reach out to Social Media Victims. We offer free consultations to help you better understand the connection.
Matthew P. Bergman