Suicide is a public health concern for every age group in the United States, but it’s becoming increasingly problematic for youth, teens, and young adults. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate for those between the ages of 10 and 24 increased 52.2% between 2000 and 2021. If you’re the parent of a teen, it’s important to talk to them about mental health and suicide, but you may not be sure how to go about the conversation. Learn some key pointers below.
Teen Suicide Statistics
Before diving into the specifics of broaching the topic of teen suicide, it’s helpful to have information about prevalence and risk factors in this population. CDC data have revealed the following teen suicide statistics:
- As of 2021, 9% of high school students reported that they had attempted suicide in the last 12 months.
- Girls were more likely to attempt suicide (12.4%) when compared to boys (5.3%).
- Among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native students, the rate of suicide attempts within the last year was 20.1%, showing that suicide is more common among this group when compared to those of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.
Based upon available data, teen suicide is a growing concern, with certain groups more affected than others.
When To Talk to Your Teen
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, talking to teens about suicide can be similar to approaching any other health or safety issue. Given the increasing rates of suicide in teens, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation about the importance of caring for your mental health. It’s also important to model healthy lifestyle choices, by talking openly about how you care for your own psychological health, and even reaching out for counseling for yourself if warranted. When you model these behaviors, your teen will feel comfortable talking to you about their own concerns.
Talking about mental health in general is a good starting point, but teens who show specific risk factors and symptoms may need a direct conversation about suicide. Researchers have identified depression as a key risk factor for teen suicides, suggesting that intervening when an adolescent shows signs of depression is critical for suicide prevention.
A teen who shows the following signs may be living with depression and in need of intervention:
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Lack of motivation
- Anxiety symptoms
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reduced ability to experience pleasure
- Self-harming behavior (cutting, burning)
It’s also important to recognize that depression in teens may present differently than in adults. For example, they may appear sulky, express negative emotions, act out, or get into trouble at school. These behaviors can be mistaken for typical teenage angst, or the teen may be blamed for bad behavior, when in reality they are struggling with depression.
When you notice signs of depression, it’s time to sit down and talk with your teen. While not every teen who experiences depression will attempt or even think about suicide, symptoms of depression do increase the risk of suicidal behavior. Some specific warning signs that a teen is thinking about suicide include:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Making statements about being in unbearable pain
- Changes in sleep habits
- Extreme mood swings
- Reckless behavior
- Anger that is uncharacteristic for the teen
- Making statements about seeking revenge
- Commenting about feeling like a burden to others
- Making arrangements, such as searching for guns online, saying goodbye to others, or giving away important possessions
- Use of drugs or alcohol
When a teen shows the signs above, immediate intervention is warranted.
Talking to Your Teen
If your teen shows signs of depression or is displaying warning signs for suicidal behavior, it’s time to have a conversation. A teen who appears depressed will benefit from support and professional treatment, which could include counseling and/or antidepressant medication.
Below are some pointers for discussing suicide with a teen who appears to be depressed:
- Approach them at a time when they appear to be calm, and not distracted by something else.
- Be prepared to offer examples of specific behavior that has concerned you. For instance, you might say, “I have noticed you aren’t enjoying playing sports or spending time with friends like you used to, and that worries me.”
- Mention that mental health problems are common and treatable, and that there is no shame in seeking help.
- If you’re worried about suicidal behavior, it’s important to be direct. You can certainly ask, “Do you ever have thoughts of killing yourself?”
- When a teen reports that they have thoughts of suicide, it’s critical to ask-follow up questions, including whether they have a specific plan or method for suicide and if they have thought about when they would carry out the plan. A teen who has made specific plans is at higher risk of dying by suicide.
Reaching Out for Help
A teen who appears depressed and/or who reports thinking about suicide will benefit from mental health services. Talking with a counselor or therapist can help the teen to overcome negative thinking patterns and develop healthy coping skills, which in turn can reduce symptoms of depression and the risk of suicide. It can also be beneficial to consult with a doctor regarding whether medication would be helpful.
Reaching out for treatment is the first step in reducing the risk of suicide. Your child’s pediatrician may be able to provide a referral to a mental health clinician. If you’re having difficulty locating services in your area, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a treatment locator tool, which allows you to search for providers in your area.
While early intervention and treatment can be critical for reducing serious consequences, including suicide, a teen who reports having a plan for suicide is at high risk and would benefit from crisis intervention. In the case of a suicidal crisis, one of the following actions can save your child’s life:
- Take the teen to the nearest emergency department for an evaluation. Emergency department staff can assist with safety planning, or in the case of imminent suicide risk, hospitalize your child until they are stable and safe to return home.
- If your child is receiving counseling services at a local clinic, schedule an appointment with crisis staff, if available. A crisis clinician can also assist with safety planning.
- Contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Simply dial or text 988 to be connected to a trained counselor, who will offer support and refer you to local resources.