The detailed information on the following pages will help you gain a better understanding of youth suicide.
What does it mean when a child or teen is suicidal?
A child or teenager who is feeling suicidal is considering taking, or planning to take, his own life.
In many cases, young people who consider or attempt suicide do not really want to die: Instead, they want to escape their problems, but can’t see a way out or imagine things getting better. Often, a suicide attempt is a “cry for help” from a child who doesn’t know where to turn.
How common is youth suicide?
- the third-leading cause of death in 15- to 24-year-olds nationwide
- the fourth-leading cause of death in 10- to 14-year-olds
- contemplated by up to 25 percent of children and adolescents at some point in their lives
- attempted 100 times for every completion
While any child or adolescent can develop suicidal thoughts or behavior, suicide is an especially significant risk for young people who are facing:
How can a child who is thinking of suicide be helped?
Children and teens who are contemplating, or have attempted, suicide should be treated with immediate, qualified and comprehensive care from a licensed mental health professional. Essential components of treatment for suicidal thoughts or behaviors include:
- psychotherapy (“talk therapy”)
- in some cases, antidepressant medication
- if necessary, hospitalization
- family support
- school support
If you believe your child may be suicidal, you should always call 911 right away.
What causes kids to consider and attempt suicide?
Adolescence is, almost universally, a very trying time. The late childhood and teen years are fraught with many challenges, from hormonal changes and peer pressure to tempestuous personal relationships, increased academic demands and possible tensions with family members at home.
While all young people experience ups and downs that can cause periods of anxiety, sadness and stress, some kids are hit especially hard. The normal changes that come with growing up, when combined with certain situations or events—a divorce; a move to a new school or town; a bully at school; a broken romance or friendship—can be overwhelming.
Worse, they may begin to believe that “the way things are is the way things always will be” and that their problems are too many, too severe or too humiliating to overcome. For these children, suicide may seem like the only way out.
Children of both genders and all ages, backgrounds and cultures are at risk for developing suicidal thinking and behavior, and there is no foolproof way to determine which child will or won’t become suicidal. However, common risk factors for suicide are:
- a prior suicide attempt
- having a mood disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder
- abusing drugs or alcohol
- a history of criminal behavior, including past arrests and/or incarceration
- displaying impulsive, disruptive or aggressive behaviors
- a family history of suicide
- a family history of mental health or substance abuse problems
- violence at home (physical, sexual or verbal/emotional abuse)
- having a firearm in the home
- social isolation (especially relating to gender/sexual identity issues)
- exposure to the suicidal behavior of others (including suicide attempts or completions by friends, classmates or family members)
- a tendency to “romanticize” or become fixated on suicides mentioned in news stories, books or movies
What are the warning signs that my child may be feeling suicidal?
There are many possible indicators of suicidal feelings, and the symptoms can vary from child to child and many are associated with other difficulties as well—so it’s vital to both know your child well, and to keep a close eye on her daily moods, activities and routines.
Potential signs of suicidal feelings and thoughts may include:
- sleeping too much or too little
- changes in appetite and/or weight
- loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- withdrawal from family and friends
- running away from home
- “acting out” verbally or physically, at home or at school
- using alcohol or drugs
- neglecting personal appearance and hygiene
- unnecessary risk-taking (for example, driving too fast or without a seatbelt)
- preoccupation with death and dying
- giving away prized personal items
- posting worrisome messages on the internet
- loss of interest or participation in school life (both academic work and social activities)
- sudden reports of trouble at school, either in the classroom (declining grades) or with peers
- difficulty concentrating
- deflecting, challenging or not responding to compliments and praise (“No, I’m not smart, I’m an idiot” or “You’re wrong—I’m really a bad person”)
It’s important to note that—not surprisingly—many of these signs are also symptoms of depression. Whether you believe your child is depressed but not yet suicidal, or is actively considering suicide, you should seek immediate treatment.
What are the warning signs that a child may actually be planning to kill himself?
You should take any of the symptoms listed above—and any other unusual or distressing behavior or statements from your child—very seriously. Even a child who seems only mildly “down in the dumps” may be considering suicide.
Any of the following behaviors should be construed as an urgent warning sign that your child may be actively planning a suicide attempt:
- saying things like, “I want to kill myself,” “I want to die” or “I just want to disappear/sleep forever”
- making threats or statements like, “Don’t worry, I won’t be a problem much longer” or “If anything happens to me, I just want you to know…”
- giving away or discarding favorite possessions
- writing a will
- writing a suicide note
- writing or expressing apologies to loved ones for “all the things I’ve done” or “all the trouble I’ve caused”
- obtaining, or attempting to obtain, a firearm, knife or rope
- obtaining, or attempting to obtain, large quantities of medication
- becoming suddenly cheerful or tranquil after an extended period of depression (this may indicate that the child has made a final plan to commit suicide, and so feels “at peace”)
Always treat any sign, suggestion or threat of suicide as a genuine cry for help. It’s essential to seek immediate professional help for your child—do not wait, even if your child tries to claim she is “better” or “didn’t mean it.” If you believe your child may be contemplating suicide, you should call 911 right away.
Q: Is youth suicide common?
A: Unfortunately, yes. Over the last several decades, the suicide rate among young people has dramatically increased. A recent survey of U.S. students in grades nine through 12 found that, during the year before taking the survey:
- 15 percent of students had seriously considered suicide
- 11 percent had formulated a plan for attempting suicide
- 7 percent had actually attempted suicide
- 1 out of every 10,000 complete suicide
Suicide is now the third-leading cause of death in 15- to 24-year-olds in the United States, and the fourth-leading cause of death in 10- to 14-year-olds.
Q: Which kids are at greatest risk of attempting suicide?
A: Children and teens of both genders and of all ages, races and backgrounds can—and sadly do—attempt and complete suicide. Native American/Alaskan Native and Hispanic youth have the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities in the United States. And children and adolescents who are struggling with mental health issues—like depression or bipolar disorder—face an elevated risk.
Q: Which kids are more likely to talk about vs. actually attempt suicide?
A: Adolescent and teen girls are more likely to attempt suicide—and to tell someone else that they are feeling suicidal. Males under the age of 25 are most likely to complete suicide.
Q: What are the most common methods of suicide in young people?
A: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common methods used by in youth suicide are:
- firearms (46 percent)
- suffocation, including hanging (39 percent)
- poisoning, including overdoses of prescribed and illegal drugs (8 percent)
Q: Is youth suicide preventable?
A: Suicide can be prevented by recognizing that a child or teen is struggling with a mental, behavioral or substance abuse problem early on—and intervening with professional help right away. Suicide prevention measures most likely to succeed are those focused on:
- identifying and treating underlying mental health issues
- teaching kids to cope with stress and life changes
- helping them control and reverse damaging and destructive behaviors
Q: What should I do if I think my child may be considering suicide?
If you think your child may feel suicidal, or is actively considering suicide, you should—first and foremost—seek immediate professional help by calling 911 right away.
It’s also important to regularly:
- ask your child how he’s feeling
- tell him you are there to support him
- promise to listen without judging
- remind him that you love him unconditionally, “no matter what”
- avoid criticizing him unnecessarily or trivializing his feelings or concerns
- refrain from giving advice that may be well-intentioned, but can actually make your child feel worse—e.g., telling him to “just get over it,” “stop worrying about it” or “try harder to get better”
- remove all firearms from the home
- lock up and carefully account for household items like knives, prescription drugs and poisonous substances
- research suicide prevention resources and support groups online and in your community
Q: How should I talk to my child if a friend, classmate or family member has committed suicide?
A: Even if your child is not depressed or suicidal herself, the loss of someone close due to suicide can be devastating, confusing and hard for her to talk about. Likewise, a suicide attempt by a peer or classmate is likely to be very upsetting and frightening for your child, even if she was not close to the other student.
One positive that can emerge from these tragedies is the opportunity to have a frank and loving discussion with your child. Guidelines can include:
- asking her how she is feeling and coping
- inviting her to talk about the person who died (or who attempted suicide) and the circumstances of the death or attempt
- encouraging her to ask questions
- asking her if she knows someone else who may be at risk of suicide, and offering suggestions for how to get that person help
- asking her if she has thought of or considered suicide in the past
- reminding her that you love her unconditionally and are always there for her
- assuring her that no problem, no matter how big, is so bad that death is the answer
- reviewing support services—such as guidance counselors, school psychologists and suicide prevention hotlines—available to her and her peers, both at school and in the community
- “leaving the door open” for her to approach you at any time, with any problem, without fear of judgment or harsh criticism
Q: How should I advise my child to help a friend who may be contemplating suicide?
A: Children and teens will often confide in their peers more readily and honestly than in parents or other adults. Offer your child these tips for helping a friend who is thinking about, or has attempted, suicide:
- Always take any suicidal threats, comments or behaviors very seriously.
- Encourage your friend to seek professional help from a teacher, school counselor, doctor or hospital, and offer to accompany her in going for help.
- Even if you’ve promised not to tell anyone: always confide in an adult you trust if your friend is thinking about suicide. Never feel you have to deal with a friend’s crisis alone. Your friend may be upset with you in the short term, but it’s a small price to pay for potentially saving her life.