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Teen Suicide

How to understand and reduce risk

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Source: Getty images

The recent suicides of public figures like Kate Spade, as well as growing awareness of non-suicidal self-injury, have triggered conversations about how much more we need to learn about who is at risk, and how we can help prevent and treat self-harm and suicidality. Parents of teens in particular may be thoughtful and concerned. Understanding risk factors and warning signs is among the most important things parents can do to support their teens.

Psychological risk factors

In addition to knowing that mental illness, high levels of stressful life events, and a prior history of suicide attempts put individuals at risk, other psychological risk factors that we sometimes write off as “normal teen stuff” can also be warning signs. While the storm and stress of adolescence can be expected, pay close attention to whether your teen is showing changes—more intense and frequent bouts—of irritability, sadness and depression, a strong sense of failure, major conflict with family or peers, or the major loss of loved one or experience of humiliation or shame. Researchers and clinicians are also learning more about the role of these risk factors:

1. Hopelessness is the feeling that positive change is not possible and that the future holds few joys or opportunities. A hopeless teen feels stuck, worthless, and unable to change. When people feel this way, suicide can start to feel like a viable option.

2. Suicidal ideation, or thoughts of harming or killing oneself, should always be taken seriously, particularly when there is a plan of action.

3. Impulsive behaviors, such as risk taking or acting before thinking, can make teens feel more distressed and lower their self-esteem, further contributing to a cycle of hopelessness. Impulsivity also reduces the natural barriers we all feel to harming ourselves. Impulsivity can trigger other risk factors, like excessive drug or alcohol use.

4. Poor problem solving can put teens at risk. Individuals sometimes make suicide attempts because they cannot identify a way to make their lives better. Teens might need help generating solutions and strengthening their problem solving abilities.

5. Disconnection from others is a powerful risk factor. Those who think about or attempt suicide often report a lack of social connectedness, feeling like they don’t belong, and feeling isolated.

Warning signs – read more about it here

Protective factors - read about it here

What Can We Do?

1. Talk. Talking to your teen about suicidal thoughts or self-harm can be difficult and anxiety-provoking for parents. Perhaps we worry that bringing up suicide might trigger the act. Yet, hiding from the realities of our teens’ suffering only leads to erosion of the trust and connection that we have with them. Talking gently and supportively will let your teen know that you are there for them and are not afraid to face their feelings together. Disconnection is one of the experiences that make suicide feel like a viable option, and satisfying social connection is a key to well-being and resilience.

2. Allow teens to express their feelings and listen with interest, patience and understanding. Although you might, as a parent, feel terrified and distressed to hear about the feelings your teen is having, be non-judgmental and just listen. When they are ready, focus on finding solutions and options together. Don’t shift into problem solving mode before teens have had the chance to fully express what they’re feeling. Sometimes just expressing feelings openly can reduce the worst of them and lay the groundwork for seeking help.

3. Safety and support. If you believe your teen is in imminent danger, take them to your healthcare professional or emergency room immediately. Make sure there is no access to lethal means or dangerous items. If your teen does not have an immediate plan, your first step is to get them professional help to move towards emotional stability. We know that therapy reduces the risk for suicide attempts in youth, so getting your teen to professional help as early as possible is of the utmost importance. You may fear you are violating your teen’s trust, but taking steps to insure their safety is the top priority and almost always builds trust in the end.

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential."

Other helpful resources include: and to learn more about suicide.

Please find Psychology Today's therapy directory here.