Suicide and Teens

Suicide occurs when a person chooses to end his or her life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019 suicide was the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents ages 13 to 19 — and the leading cause of death among 13-year-olds. It is the 10th leading cause of deaths among all Americans.

Research shows that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are the greatest predictors of suicide. These include passive thoughts of wanting to be dead, recurrent thoughts about ending one’s life, plans and behaviors that “rehearse” killing oneself, and suicide attempts. According to 2019 statistics from the CDC, 8.9 percent of high school students surveyed attempted suicide and 18.8 percent of high school students “seriously considered” attempting suicide.

What are some potential causes of suicidal thoughts?

Research shows that up to 90 percent of people who have died by suicide suffered from a mental illness. Impulsivity and substance use, including alcohol and drugs, also are warning signs for elevated suicide risk. It is important to remember that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not the natural consequence of serious life stresses. People who experience a stressful life event may feel intense sadness or loss, anxiety, anger, or hopelessness, and may occasionally have the thought that they would be better off dead. In most people, however, experiences of stressful life events do not trigger recurring thoughts of death, creation of a suicide plan, or intent to die. If any of these are present, it suggests that the person is suffering from depression or another psychiatric disorder and should seek professional treatment.

What are the signs of suicidal ideation?

The primary sign of suicidal thoughts is talking about suicide or doing something to try to harm oneself. If your child expresses suicidal thoughts or exhibits self-harming behaviors, seek professional help.

There are many warning signs and risk factors for suicide. The list below is not exhaustive, but is intended to provide insight into what factors might elevate a child or adolescent’s level of suicide risk. This does not mean that if your child or adolescent has some of these risk factors, then s/he will automatically take his/her own life. Suicide risk takes into account many factors and needs to be continuously monitored by a mental health professional. Remember that many factors combine to lead to a suicidal crisis and may include some of those that are listed below.

  • mental illness or psychiatric diagnosis
  • family history of suicide and/or exposure to suicide
  • family history of mental illness
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • losses
  • aggressive behavior or impulsivity
  • lack of social support or social isolation
  • poor coping skills
  • access to ways of harming oneself, like guns, knives, etc.
  • difficulties in dealing with sexual orientation
  • physical illness
  • family disruptions (divorce or problems with the law)
  • traumatic event

Warning signs include:

  • preoccupation with death (e.g., recurring themes of death or self-destruction in artwork or written assignments
  • intense sadness and/or hopelessness
  • not caring about activities that used to matter
  • social withdrawal from family, friends, sports, or social activities
  • substance abuse
  • sleep disturbance (either not sleeping or staying awake all night)
  • giving away possessions
  • risky behavior
  • lack of energy
  • inability to think clearly or problems with concentration
  • declining school performance or increased absences from school
  • increased irritability
  • changes in appetite

How common is suicide?

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States. In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 47,000 suicide deaths were reported nationally — including about 2,600 teenagers.

How can I tell if my child is having suicidal thoughts?

You can start by asking your child if he or she is thinking about suicide. Be sure to ask them in clear, straight-forward language like, “I’m worried about you. Have you been having thoughts about wanting to die or killing yourself?” People who attempt or complete suicide often exhibit a number of warning signs, either through what they say or by what they do. The more warning signs a teenager exhibits, the higher the risk of completing suicide. If you think your child might be at risk for suicide, you should have him/her evaluated by a professional. You could call your primary care physician, your child’s therapist or psychiatrist, your local mobile crisis team, or visit the closest emergency department. In an emergency, you should call 911.

What is the difference between suicide in children and suicide in adults?

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 10 and 19, and it is the 10th leading cause of death for all Americans. Firearms are the most frequently used method for death by suicide in the United States. The most frequent methods used by teenagers are by firearm or suffocation, which account for 84.5 percent of teen suicide deaths.

How is suicide risk assessed?

Suicide screenings may be done by health care providers such as pediatricians and nurses as part of standard health assessments. Suicide risk is assessed by trained mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, clinical social workers, clinical psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and mental health counselors. For rapid assessment of suicide risk, you should access care through your primary care physician, a local crisis team, or your local emergency department.

If my child is suicidal, what happens next?

The mental health professional who assesses your child should work with you and your child to acquire appropriate treatment. Treatment may include an inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, a partial hospitalization/day program, outpatient psychotherapy, home-based therapy, psychiatric medication, or some combination of the above.

How can I prevent suicide?

You can prevent suicide by being on the lookout for the warning signs mentioned above. You can also prevent suicide by asking about it. Studies show that people do not start thinking about suicide just because someone asks them about it. If you suspect your child or adolescent is suicidal, tell them that you are worried and want to help them. Remember, sometimes children or adolescents who are thinking about suicide won’t tell you because they are worried how you will react. Your direct, non-judgmental questions can encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Regardless of their response, if you suspect that the person may be suicidal, get them help immediately.

What is the long-term outlook for a child who is suicidal?

With the right help, a child who is suicidal can make a full recovery and live a fully productive life.

Where can I go to learn more?