Teen Suicide: Know the Warning Signs
By Mary Helen Berg
When Clark Flatt’s 16-year-old son killed himself with a .38 caliber pistol nearly two decades ago, no one in his community, school, or church was talking about suicide.
“We talked about drugs; we talked about bullying. No one ever mentioned teen suicide as a threat to my son,“ recalls Flatt, who today is president of the non-profit Jason Foundation, a suicide education and prevention organization. “If I had gone through and learned about the warning signs, I might not have thought ‘suicide,’ but I would have said, ‘I need to get some professional help for him.’”
Parents often think suicide can’t happen in their family and avoid talking about it. But teen suicide is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Only accidents, including car crashes and overdoses, kill more people ages 10 to 24.
“Suicide doesn’t just happen to other people,” Flatt says. “It happens to the football captain, the head of the chess team, and the student body government leader.”
Preventing Teen Suicide
Talk about Suicide
It’s important to be direct when talking about teen suicide. If you have concerns, ask your teen outright if she ever thinks about hurting herself. Don’t worry that you’re “putting ideas in their heads,” advises Dr. David Miller, president of the Association of American Suicidology.
“If an adolescent is already suicidal, talking about it, your words, are not going to make them more suicidal than they already are,” Miller says. “If they are not currently suicidal, then talking about it won’t magically make them so.”
Risk Factors for Suicide
Although we sometimes think of teens as impulsive risk-takers, this trait doesn’t necessarily contribute to more teen suicide attempts, according to Miller.
“In the research I’ve seen, people who are suicidal have often thought about this a great deal,” he notes.
Risk factors for suicide include a family history of suicide and mental health disorders, substance abuse, illness, feelings of isolation, and easy access to guns, medications, or other lethal means, according to the CDC.
A “trigger event” such as bullying, a bad grade, or a breakup can also prompt a vulnerable teen to attempt suicide, explains Flatt, who formed the Jason Foundation in his son’s memory. The Tennessee-based organization now has 92 affiliates across the country, serving an estimated four million people.
Know the Warning Signs
Most adolescents who attempt suicide—four out of five, according to the Jason Foundation—give some type of warning, including:
- Suicidal ideation or preoccupation with suicide, ranging from fleeting thoughts to detailed plans
- Statements such as, “I wish I were dead,” or, “No one would miss me if I were gone”
- Persistent feelings of depression or hopelessness
- Behavior that is out of character, such as dramatic changes in grades, hygiene, or mood
- Giving away prized possessions
Have a Plan to Prevent Teen Suicide
Parents know they should take their kids to the emergency room if they have appendicitis, but they often don’t know what to do if their child is depressed. Here’s what experts recommend:
1. Research mental health resources. “Don’t wait until the critical point,” Flatt warns. “If you wait until there’s actually suicidal ideation, you’ve really reached a very dangerous edge.”
2. Maintain an open dialogue with your teen.
3. If your teen seems depressed, don’t ignore it or assume it’s typical teen moodiness.
4. Store guns, prescription medications, and alcohol in safe locations.
5. Encourage your teen to seek adult help if they notice a friend exhibiting suicidal behaviors. “This is not about being a snitch. This is about helping someone and potentially saving someone’s life,” stresses Miller.
Mary Helen Berg is a freelance writer in Southern California.