Recognizing and Protecting Against Suicidal Ideation in Teens
“One in six!”
That’s how many high school students reported having serious suicidal ideation in a U.S.-wide survey in 2015 (Kann, 2016). In other words, over 16% of high school students in recent years experienced significant thoughts of killing themselves. What’s more, suicide constitutes the second highest cause of death among young people in the U.S. (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2018).
These are grim statistics showing the need for adults, peers, friends, and family of adolescents to help protect them from suicide. It is not uncommon to hear loved ones of someone lost to suicide say, “I never thought this could happen”, or “there were no signs of him thinking about doing this.” The truth is, there are often red flags, including very subtle ones, when someone is having suicidal thoughts.
An adolescent is not likely to come up to a friend or family member and declare, “I am thinking about killing myself, and here is my plan for how I’ll do it. Please help me not do this”. Rather, there are less direct ways they may communicate suicidal ideation. Look out for statements like these:
- It’s just not worth it anymore.
- I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up.
- I think the world would be better off without me.
- I can’t stand the pain, I just want it to end.
- It would be better to not feel at all.
Along with words, the teenager may be engaging in concerning behaviors, such as isolating from friends and family, quitting activities in which they usually took pleasure, acting out or getting themselves into dangerous or risky situations, and changing their eating or sleeping habits.
It is imperative to communicate about suicidality with teenagers, most especially if these warning signs are present.
Here are 6 Tips on how to handle this conversation:
- There is a misconception that talking about suicide will plant ideas in the person’s head, but in reality, if she has those ideas, they were already there. Broach the subject gently and in a way that makes them feel safe to share with you.
- If there is any inkling that an adolescent is in danger of suicide, talk to them and put it all out on the table. Do not treat it like a taboo subject, but instead normalize it and ask open questions about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
- Find out if they have a plan, a time they intend to do it, and the means to follow through with their plan. If there is a clear plan and the danger seems imminent, get help immediately by going to the nearest mental health hospital or if the teen is not willing to go then call 911.
- If the adolescent is having suicidal ideation but does not intend to act on it, work on a safety plan with them so they have healthy coping mechanisms when experiencing thoughts of killing themselves. The safety plan can include people to contact, safe places to go, good activities to do, and lifelines to call (see the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number 1-800-273-8255).
- If the adolescent is not already in therapy, see if that is something they are open to trying. If they are in therapy, make sure their therapist is aware of the suicidal thoughts.
- Adolescents are highly vulnerable, as they are working on identity development, feeling peer pressure and bullying, and lacking emotional maturity. Moreover, they tend to think irrationally to the point where they may catastrophize situations, believe they are completely alone in feeling the way they do, or think their distress will last forever. They need the support of loving friends and family members, along with therapists and other important adults in their lives that will help them see that these feelings will pass.
Suicide is preventable. Take up the mantle to spread awareness and have those difficult conversations. They are not easy, but they could be life-saving.
If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
- Kann, L., et al. (2016). Youth risk behavior surveillance – United States, 2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries, 65(6), 1-174. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/ss6506a1.htm
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2018). Ten leading causes of death and injury. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/LeadingCauses.html
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Author: Isabel Tanco, Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern in our Dallas Total Life Counseling Center. She is a bilingual counselor who works with children, teens, couples, families and individuals! Give us a call at 407-248-0030 for more information.