National Suicide Prevention Month
Suicide doesn’t discriminate. Anyone of any gender, age, race or socioeconomic status might feel suicidal at any point in their lives – even if they “have it all” or appear to be happy from the outside.
However, teenagers are specifically at risk for suicide.
Teenage years are a stressful time and there are many major physical and emotional changes to contend with. Puberty transforms the body in new and strange ways and hormones wreck havoc with moods and emotions. Teenagers go through strong feelings of confusion, fear, stress and doubt – perhaps more intense and traumatic than anything they have faced so far in their lives.
Teenagers feel a strong pressure to succeed, and they can also feel frustrated and anxious about their future. New situations (such as moving to a new location or starting at a different school) can feel daunting and intimidating.
If you have a teenager you care about in your life, it’s important to be aware of the mental health and suicide risks they are facing. On this resource page, you’ll find answers to some of the most common questions about teenage suicide and practical information for what to do if you are concerned about a loved one.
Is suicide a side effect of mental illness or addiction?
It’s important to understand that suicide is not a mental illness in itself. Rather, it is often a serious consequence of many mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, eating disorders and much more.
In these cases, suicidal thoughts are connected to or caused by an underlying mental illness that can be treated. Teenagers who are feeling suicidal usually need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist who is experienced in diagnosing and treating children with mental health problems.
Therapy can help your teen to explore the issues that are making them feel suicidal and learn skills to manage their emotions more effectively. Also, the therapist can help them to diagnose the mental illness or addiction and develop a treatment plan.
However, suicide isn’t always linked to a long term mental illness. In some cases, suicidal thoughts can be caused by extreme stress in a particular situation and are alleviated once that situation is resolved.
Or, sometimes the answer can be a combination: your teen may be susceptible to depression, anxiety or other mental health issues and their current situation is making these conditions worse.
Why do teens and young adults want to commit suicide?
According to a report by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the rate of young adults and adolescents dying of suicide in the USA reached its highest level in nearly two decades in 2019 3.
Generally, teens and young adults want to commit suicide because they are in serious emotional and psychological pain and they don’t see any hope of a brighter future. They feel isolated, misunderstood, frustrated and hopeless and see suicide as a way to escape their pain.
There are many reasons why teens and young adults might consider suicide:
However, these are not the only factors. There are infinite reasons why someone might commit suicide and it’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s situation is different.
Many people make the incorrect assumption that suicide is “selfish” – but from the perspective of the suicide victim things look very different. Often, their self worth is so low that they believe themselves to be a burden on their loved ones. They are convinced that they are worthless and that the world would be “better off without them.”
Does Social Media contribute to suicidality?
The powerful and pervasive effects of social media can contribute to suicidal ideation in teenagers. Teenagers these days are deeply immersed in social media. It’s how they communicate with their friends, receive their news and information and present their identity to the world.
While social media can be a positive tool used to connect people, it can also cause a lot of psychological harm. It’s easier for teens to engage in cyber-bullying, as it’s much easier to send someone a hurtful message from behind a screen than to say it to their face.
Cyberbully often results in a teenager being repeatedly targeted by another teen, with threats of humiliation or violence. These attacks can take place over social media, or via texting or instant messaging 3.
In addition to the concern of cyberbullying, social media can also have a generally negative affect on mental health and self esteem. Many teens end up comparing themselves to the “perfect” social media feeds of their peers or of influencers and celebrities. When faced with an endless stream of photo-shopped selfies and carefully curated updates, it’s easy to feel like you don’t measure up. This can lead to thoughts of low self worth and despair.
It can often be easy for teens to forget that when they compare themselves to those who seem to be “perfect” online – they are comparing their “behind the scenes” to someone else’s “highlight reel”. It’s important to talk to the teenagers in your life about how someone’s social media presence is not necessarily an accurate representation of their life.
Reassure your teen that even the most perfect Instagram influencer has flaws and imperfections and that NO ONE is ever as perfect as they claim to be on social media. Let the teenagers in your life know that the ultra-edited ideal of social media is not a realistic standard to live up to – and encourage them to accept their own imperfections and hardships.
You can also encourage your teen to spend less time using social media. Explain the benefits of putting their phone away for a while, interacting with others face to fare or participating in activities they enjoy. Taking a break from social media can have very positive effects on everyone’s mental health.
Suicide and LGBT Youth
LGBT youth often face relentless bullying from their peers, as well as harmful stereotypes and family rejection. Also, the passage of laws that discriminate against LGBT people have also been shown to negatively impact mental health. In fact, every time a discriminatory law is passed, studies show that depression and drug use among LGBT people increases significantly 5.
However, the opposite effect occurs when laws that offer LGBT people equal civil rights are passed. For example, a nationwide US study found that the establishment of same-sex marriage resulted in a significant reduction in the rate of attempted suicide by LGBT youth. 6
If your teen is LGBT, it’s important to let them know that you accept them for who they are – and that you’ll be there to support them when they face stigma and bullying. They need to know that you won’t reject them for being themselves and that they have a future. Love them, be their ally, stand up for them and give them hope.
It also can be very helpful to connect the LGBT teen in your life with resources such as The Trevor Project and the It Gets Better project, both created to offer support to LGBT youth. They also have support and resources for parents and guardians.
Is self-harm a sign of suicidal ideation?
Perhaps you’ve noticed marks on the arms and legs of the teenager in your life and you are concerned that they have been harming themselves. Self harm is a preoccupation with directly and deliberately hurting oneself, and it often results in visible damage 7. For example, some of the common methods of self harm include cutting, burning or hitting.
Self-harm is particularly an issue among teenage girls. Girls between the ages of 14 and 17 are four times more likely to be hospitalized for self-harm than boys 7. Girls are more likely to cut themselves while boys are likely to burn or hit themselves.
Self-harm is different from suicide, in that the intent is not to cause death. In fact, often the purpose of self-harm is to distract from or avoid suicidal impulses. It serves to offset the feelings caused by stress or trauma. Self-harm can help to release pent-up feelings such as anxiety or anger. Also, those who are feeling “numb” due to depression or trauma may hurt themselves simply to feel “something”.
Sometimes self-harm can be a form of self-punishment, or a way for the person to communicate their emotional pain — especially if they display their wounds to others. Although the direct intent is not to cause death, self-harm can often escalate into suicidal ideation.
A study found that nearly half of all people who self-harm have reported at least one suicide attempt 7.
Since self-harm carries the risk of escalating into suicide, it’s important to assess anyone who self-harms as a suicide risk.
Fortunately, self-harm is treatable. There are many resources available out there and methods such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy have been successful in eliminating the impulse to self-harm.
What are the signs that someone is suicidal?
If you suspect that a teenager you care about is suicidal, there are some warning signs you can watch out for.
First of all, the most important thing to do is listen to your teenager. Around 50-75% of people who are considering suicide will mention it to a friend or a relative 8. If your teenager says something about not wanting to live anymore, it’s important to take it seriously.
However, not everyone who is considering suicide will say so out loud.
Here are some of the other hints you should be keeping an eye out for:
Also, be aware when your teenager suddenly becomes calm after a prolonged period of moodiness or depression. This can be a sign that they have made a decision or even a plan to end their life.
They might even start putting their personal business in order – such as giving away personal possessions, cleaning out their room or writing a note. They might start hoarding pills, buy a firearm or research some other method of ending their lives.
It’s interesting to note that suicide rates and methods differ between girls and boys. Teenage girls will think about and attempt suicide around twice as often as boys. They will typically tend to attempt to kill themselves by cutting or by overdosing on drugs.
However, teenage boys die by suicide at a rate of four times as often as girls – which is generally considered to be because they use more lethal methods. Teenage boys are more likely to commit suicide with methods such as hanging, firearms or jumping from heights.
How do I talk to a teenager who is having suicidal thoughts?
On average, one person dies by suicide every 11 minutes in the USA 1.
It can be scary to talk to a teenager in your life about suicide. You might be worried that by bringing up the subject, you might put the idea in their heads. However, it doesn’t work this way. Mentioning suicide or talking about it with your teenager is not going to make them do it. On the contrary, simply having a calm, open-minded and loving discussion with your teenager could save their life.
If they have been having suicidal thoughts, it offers them a safe space to talk about their feelings. They will likely feel relieved and understood and glad that you cared enough to ask.
If they deny there is a problem, they might just not be ready to talk about it just yet. Let them know that you’re here to talk if they ever need. You can also give them the phone number of a confidential helpline if they would rather talk to someone else.
Here are some tips for this conversation:
Most importantly, show empathy and take their feelings seriously. Dismissing them as “attention seeking,” trying to fix their problems or telling them to “get some perspective” can be incredibly harmful and can make the situation worse. Listen with empathy and without judgement.
If your teenager opens up and shares with you, this is just the beginning of the healing process. From here, you can learn about the reasons why they are having suicidal thoughts and you can take the next steps.
With kindness, empathy, support and the right resources you can help them find joy, hope and meaning in their lives again.
- 1. DoSomething. (n.d.). 11 Facts About Suicide. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-suicide#fn1
- 2. PCC. (n.d.). Social Media, Self-Esteem, and Teen Suicide. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://blog.pcc.com/social-media-self-esteem-and-teen-suicide
- 3. Miron O, Yu K, Wilf-Miron R, Kohane IS. Suicide Rates Among Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States, 2000-2017. JAMA. 2019;321(23):2362–2364. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5054
- 4. Luxton DD, June JD, Fairall JM. Social media and suicide: a public health perspective. Am J Public Health. 2012;102 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S195-S200. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300608
- 5. Hatzenbuehler ML, McLaughlin KA, Keyes KM, Hasin DS. The impact of institutional discrimination on psychiatric disorders in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: a prospective study. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(3):452-459. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.168815
- 6. Suicide among LGBT youth. (2020, September 06). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_among_LGBT_youth#Impact_of_same-sex_marriage
- 7.Centre For Suicide Prevention. (2016, December 09). Self-harm and Suicide. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/self-harm-and-suicide/
- 8. Casarella, J. (2020, March 11). How to Recognize Symptoms of Suicidal Behavior. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/recognizing-suicidal-behavior#1
- 9. Lyness, D. (Ed.). (2015, August). About Teen Suicide (for Parents) – Nemours