Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents 15 to 19 years old. While there are several risk factors for suicide, any person who expresses suicidal thoughts or the intent to commit suicide should be taken seriously.
Some of the risk factors for adolescent suicide include:
Verbalizing desire to die or hopeless thoughts Suicidal or self-harmful behavior, particularly in the recent past Family history of suicide or suicide attempts Untreated psychiatric illness Unsupportive social environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual or those questioning sexual identity History of physical or sexual abuse or being bullied Social isolation Intermittent agitation
Knowing and acting on the signs of suicide could save thousands of lives each year. It’s especially important to be concerned if someone exhibits signs and has also attempted suicide in the past, as most successful suicides were preceded by one or more attempts.
Some of the warning signs of a person who might be contemplating suicide include:
Risk-taking behavior – Those who are contemplating suicide might “tempt fate” by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving at dangerous speeds.
Losing interest in previously important activities and friends – Unexplained loss of interest in things like sports, work and volunteer activities might also be combined with a withdrawal from interactions with friends and self-imposed isolation.
Researching methods of suicide – Searching suicide online or buying anything that could be used to commit suicide is an important sign to watch for.
Talking about death and hopelessness – Conversations might center on death and wanting to die or on feelings of hopelessness and lacking reasons to live. Potentially suicidal people might also talk about being a burden to family and friends or experiencing unendurable pain.
Extreme shifts in mood – Periods of deep depression could be punctuated by feelings of elation, happiness or rage.
Increased substance abuse – A history of substance abuse is a risk factor for suicide but increased use could be a warning sign of suicidal thoughts.
Noticeable changes in sleep patterns – This could either be exhibited as sleeping too much or suffering from insomnia.
Giving away possessions – Suddenly giving away multiple items that seemed important to the person in the past.
If you notice these signs in a friend or family member, first discuss your observations or concerns with the person and/or other friends or family members. Make sure to listen to the person’s concerns and what might be stressful for them. If someone appears depressed and/or expresses suicidal thoughts, it's important to listen closely and take that person seriously.
Parents who suspect that their child is depressed or contemplating suicide should ask a family doctor or school counselor for a referral to a qualified mental health professional. You should bring your child to a hospital emergency department or call 911 with any suspicion of an immediate risk to themselves. May is mental health month, and there is no better time to talk to your children about their mental and emotional wellness.
Dr. Benjamin Shain is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at NorthShore University HealthSystem.