Guides

Protecting Our Youth: the Importance of Teen Suicide Prevention and Awareness

October 23, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or is in immediate danger, contact 911 right away for assistance.

Growing up is hard—changes are happening both internally and externally, and there’s pressure coming from all different directions to excel, overachieve, and stand out. But what happens when emotional conflict escalates beyond what’s expected?

While, unfortunately, not a “new” phenomenon, teen suicide drew national attention once again in 2019 after two survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, committed suicide in March, a little over a year after the initial tragedy. 

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, counselor, older sibling, or a teenager yourself, you’re probably asking yourself, “What can I do to protect the adolescents and youth adults in my life?” Though it certainly might not feel like it to someone who’s struggling with suicidal thoughts, suicide is one of the only causes of death that’s 100 percent preventable. Keep reading for more information regarding:

  • Teen suicide (including facts, figures, and warning signs)
  • Raising awareness and prevention strategies
  • Treatment options for adolescent depression 

A Closer Look at Teen Suicide: Facts, Figures, and Warning Signs

According to the United Health Foundation, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 24 in 2017, with over 6,200 suicide deaths taking place within that age group over the course of the year. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance reported that 17.2 percent of high school students seriously considered suicide and 7.4 percent attempted suicide. 

Infographic about teen suicide in the United States
Many people don’t realize just how prevalent suicide is among adolescents and young adults—but the truth is, suicide results in the death of more teens each year than cancer does.

Demographic Breakdown

Sex — Females are more likely to attempt suicide, but males are more likely to die by suicide. This disproportion appears across all ages groups for a variety of reasons that mostly relate back to the social constructs surrounding gender. For instance, females are more likely to seek help than males, and males are more likely to attempt suicide through more violent methods (e.g. firearms), thus resulting in more deaths.  

Rates of suicide in males versus females
This disparity has been consistent over the many years that experts have studied suicide and its demographic patterns.

Race and Ethnicity — In the United States, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are the racial and ethnic groups that are at the highest risk for suicide, followed by non-Hispanic whites. However, it’s important to remember that suicide can affect anyone regardless of race and ethnicity. 

Graph depicting suicide rates for American Indians and Alaska natives for the years 2008 to 2017.
Suicide rates for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives peak during adolescence and young adulthood. Conversely, the suicide rate for the majority of the United States population peaks during mid-adulthood. Source, CDC 2017.

Sexuality — LGBTQ+ teens are more likely to attempt suicide than teens who identify as cisgender and heterosexual. These teens are also more likely to be bullied and experience harassment. 

Illustration for the Trevor Project
The Trevor Project is a leading American nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. Image courtesy of The Trevor Project on Facebook

Warning Signs 

While there are many reasons that a teen might consider suicide, but broad contributing factors include a history of mental health conditions and conflict between parents or peers. 

What Makes a Teen More Likely to Consider Suicide?

  • They’re experiencing conflicts at school or at home. 
  • They are depressed or have a different diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition. 
  • They feel as though no one cares and/or have low self-esteem.
  • They have a problem with drugs and/or alcohol. 
  • They have suffered a stressful or traumatic event like an unwanted pregnancy, the death of a loved one, trouble with the law, etc. 

What Warning Signs Should You Look For?

  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns (not eating much, eating too much; not sleeping enough, sleeping too much) 
  • Easily irritated or prone to unexplained outbursts (reckless, violent, or rebellious behavior) 
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Diminished interest in activities that they used to enjoy
  • Talking about death and suicide, even jokingly 
  • Giving away possessions
  • Declining grades in school 

Raising Awareness and Prevention Strategies 

Decreasing the frequency of teen suicide requires a multifaceted two-fold strategy. Raising awareness and learning prevention strategies are actions that everyone can take part in to help reduce suicide rates among adolescents and young adults. 

Education

Educating teens about the importance of mental health is an essential preventative measure that needs to be taken by parents and school systems alike. Many adolescents and young adults might not recognize symptoms of a mental health condition or might even mistake warning signs as a “normal” part of growing up. This confusion and lack of information can make suicidal thoughts all the more dangerous, as teenagers—and even young children—might not know how to find help or that help is even an option. 

Infographic depicting mental health facts in America
Many mental health conditions begin to manifest during adolescence and young adulthood, which means that students need to be informed about the signs and symptoms that they might be experiencing or starting to experience. Image courtesy of Humanim

Helplines

Sometimes, it’s too difficult to ask for help in-person—or sadly, in some cases, teenagers don’t have an adult in their life who they can go to for support. These are some mental health helplines that you or your teen can call, text, or message in times of crisis. 

Demonstrating Support 

If you’re the parent of a teenager who struggles with a mental health condition, you might not know the best way to show them that you’re there for them, no matter what. While verbal assertion is certainly a valuable means of expressing how much you care, there are other ways that you demonstrate your support for your child as well. 

Being a Good Listener 

Most of the time, your teenager isn’t looking for someone to solve all of their problems for them—they just want someone to listen. Make yourself a trusted outlet for your child by practicing good listening skills, which means hearing what they have to say without interrupting or giving advice (unless, of course, they’re asking for it). If you’re not sure if your teenager is asking for help or simply in need of a good listener, just ask! 

Encouraging Their Recovery Efforts

For the majority of people who suffer from a mental health condition, recovery isn’t a definite place or point in time but an ongoing process that might even take a lifetime to figure out. As a parent, your job is to get your child the help that they need and encourage them every step of the way. However, it’s important that you establish boundaries and understand that they might not be comfortable with you being present during every consultation or appointment. Usually, this doesn’t mean that your teenager doesn’t trust you or doesn’t appreciate what you’ve done for them—they probably just don’t want to upset you, and they might even feel guilty talking about how they feel in front of you since they know that you’re trying your best. 

Taking Part in an Awareness or Fundraising Walk 

Suicide affects a lot of people, whether they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts in the past, know someone who has, or have lost a loved one to suicide. For this reason, there are a number of nonprofits dedicated to raising awareness about suicide and contributing to suicide-prevention efforts. These organizations typically host fundraising events such as community walks to create a sense of unity among survivors and remind those who struggle that they’re not alone. 

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is America’s largest nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention and raising awareness about suicide. Every year, AFSP hosts the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk, a 16-mile walk that starts at dusk and ends at dawn. 

Walkers in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk stand outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Overnight is held in two locations—a West-Coast city and an East-Coast city—every year. Image courtesy of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

In addition to the Overnight, AFSP also hosts smaller community walks that are shorter and have smaller fundraising goals. Awareness walks are a great way to bond with your teenager and show your support for them by taking action.

Treatment Options

If your teenager is feeling depressed or suicidal, finding treatment is the first step to them getting better. When it comes to mental health treatment, there is, unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all method, which means there is a variety of approaches to treating any type of mental health condition. 

Counseling

Counseling, or psychotherapy, is usually initial treatment option that medical professionals advise for depression, especially for teenagers. Certain therapists even specialize in adolescents and young adults, as younger clients usually require different approaches than adults. Your teenager might be reluctant to see a therapist, but as a parent, it’s your job to make sure that they get the help that they need. 

Medication

If your teenager’s symptoms don’t improve with therapy, their therapist will probably recommend seeing a psychiatrist who can talk to you about medication. Not all medications are safe for adolescents and teens, but your medical provider or psychiatrist will be able to recommend a drug that has been approved for your child’s age group. 

Chart showing antidepressants that have been approved by the FDA for pediatric use
Right now, Fluoxetine and Escitalopram are the only drugs that have been approved by the FDA for pediatric use. Image courtesy of Mad in America.  

Non-Pharmaceutical Options

Not everyone responds to medication, and though treatment might start with therapy and medication, it doesn’t have to end there. There are several non-pharmaceutical ways to treat depression that are available to your teen if they aren’t getting better with medication. 

If your teenager has been diagnosed with depression but isn’t showing a significant response to traditional treatment, they might have treatment-resistant depression, which occurs in up to a third of people who suffer from depression. But as science advances, more treatment options are becoming available, and it’s important that your teenager understands that recovery doesn’t happen overnight. 

Breaking the Stigma: Stop Wondering—Start Talking

The stigma around suicide can make it difficult to talk about. However, it’s absolutely vital that we do, even if it’s uncomfortable. Communicate to your teenager that they can come to you with any problem or ask for help at any time. If you’re worried about your teenager or start seeing warning signs of suicidal behavior, start a conversation immediately about how they’re feeling and what you can do to help. When it comes to suicide, there truly is no time to waste.


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