What You Should Know About Teen Suicide

Recent conversations with friends and colleagues have been abuzz with discussions about “13 Reasons Why,” a new Netflix series about a teen who died by suicide that has sparked debate across the country. While they all have reservations about some of the graphic content and appropriateness for teen viewers, they also feel the issue of teen suicide is an important one to discuss.

I completely agree.

Suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death for youth under age 24. As healthcare providers, parents, friends, and loved ones, it’s vital we understand what we can do to support those who may be considering ending their life.

Warning signs to watch for

Though the act to attempt suicide is often impulsive, teens also offer warning signs. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • Hopeless talk. Phrases like, “Would anyone even miss me if I were gone?” or “It would be so much easier if I wasn’t here,” are worrisome and should prompt you to seek help.
  • Social isolation. If your teen stops hanging out with friends, drops out of activities they previously enjoyed, or is spending a lot of time alone when they previously didn’t, be concerned.
  • Giving away items that have meaning. If your teen gives away items that they previously would have never parted with (such as a favorite article of clothing or an electronic device they frequently use), ask what is motivating them to give these things away.
  • Displays of depression on social media. Monitor your teen’s social media postings. Periodically look at their account. If you see posts that worry you, tell them you’re concerned.
  • A previous suicide attempt. This is the number one cause for concern. If they have previously attempted to end their life and are continuing to struggle, seek help immediately.

How you can help

Parents often ask me, “How do I find help?” I give these responses:

  • Tell them you’re worried. A comment such as, “I’ve noticed you’re not engaging with friends and have seemed hopeless. This worries me. Let’s get help so you can feel better.”
  • Consult a professional. Take your teen to their medical provider for a depression screening and find a therapist. For therapy resources, look at your insurance carrier’s provider network or ask your teen’s medical provider for a referral.
  • Escalate to be safe. If you’re worried that your teen is suicidal and you can’t keep them safe, call 911 or take them to an emergency department for an evaluation.
  • Remove firearms from the home. People who act to end their life often do so impulsively. The time between the thought and acting on it can be as short as a few minutes. For this reason, it is important that if your teen (or one you know) is struggling with thoughts of suicide, take them seriously, and remove firearms (the most lethal and fast-acting means to suicide) from the home. Ask a family member or friend if they will safely store and keep the firearm until your teen is feeling better. If this is not an option, ask if they will keep the ammunition and keys to the gun lock box. Store the firearm unloaded, un-cocked and locked.
  • Remove or secure medications. Remove unused medications from the home and keep medications that are being used in a locked, secured place.

Regardless of your feelings about a TV series, teen suicide is a painful reality that absolutely needs to be discussed with adolescents. Overlooking this issue simply comes at too high of a cost for too many teens, families and communities each year. I recommend talking with your teens about their mood and letting them know you’re concerned if there are behaviors that worry you. If you are a teen and a friend is expressing thoughts of suicide, consider telling an adult they trust and encourage them to seek advice from a trusted adult and/or a crisis line.

Additional information and resources on suicide prevention: