Suicide is our most preventable public health problem, yet in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that suicide claimed the lives of 6,796 American youths between the ages of 10 and 24, making up 14 percent of all suicides for that year. As statistics can often strip us of our humanity, to put those “numbers” into perspective, 6,796 adolescents and young adults could occupy 76 school buses at maximum capacity.
It’s wise to take that number with a grain of salt for several reasons. Why? Suicide is notoriously under-reported as a result of the undue stigma associated with death in that manner. What’s more, these numbers do not encapsulate the public health issue in its entirety.
We must also take into consideration nonfatal suicidal behavior or attempts to take one’s life. The American Association of Suicidology estimates that for every one youth death by suicide, there are between 100 and 200 attempts. The 2017 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) cited some eye-opening statistics that shed more light on the prevalence of the issue:
- 17.2 percent of U.S. high school students reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.
- 13.6 percent reported engaging in planning to end their life.
- 7.4 percent reported having made a suicide attempt in the past year.
- In 2017, 2.4 percent of all student suicide attempts nationwide resulted in an injury, poisoning, or overdose.
- Students who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were more likely to consider suicide.
Sadly, that same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports declared that suicide was the second leading cause of death among the age group identified above, for all races and sexes.
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” One of the best approaches to suicidality is being proactive and taking the appropriate steps to ensure the safety of your family.
7 Steps You Can Take Today
1. Do not be fearful of inquiring about suicidal thoughts.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends that parents ask the direct question, “Have you ever felt so bad that you have had thoughts of suicide?”
Many parents fear that asking will “put the thought in their head.” This is a very common fear among parents that, luckily, lacks scientific evidence.
A scientific review was conducted in 2014, which investigated the common fear that enquiring about suicide and related behaviors may bring about or prompt suicidal thoughts. The researchers found the opposite, in fact, and concluded that there was no statistically significant increase in suicidal ideation among study participants who were asked about suicide.
The researchers stated, “Our findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may, in fact, reduce rather than increase suicidal ideation, and may lead to improvements in mental health in treatment-seeking populations.”
Asking about suicide conveys that you are present, paying attention, and, most importantly, that you care about their well-being.
Do not hesitate to get in touch with a mental health professional if you need help navigating the talk with your child. If your child confirms that they are currently in crisis, take them to the nearest emergency room for further evaluation immediately. Do not wait, and do not leave them unsupervised until they receive appropriate medical attention.
2. There are 12 suicide warning signs that parents should look out for, according to the CDC:
- Feeling like a burden
- Being isolated
- Increased anxiety
- Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Increased substance use
- Looking for a way to access lethal means
- Increased anger or rage
- Extreme mood swings
- Expressing hopelessness
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Talking or posting about wanting to die
- Making plans for suicide
3. Know what suicidal ideation sounds like.
It’s imperative that we not assume our children are “joking” or are “not serious” when mentioning harming themselves or thoughts of death.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention encourages that we listen for statements such as:
- “I should just kill myself.”
- “I’ve got no reason to live.”
- “Everyone would be better off without me.”
- “There’s no way out of this.”
- “I can’t live like this anymore.”
- “I can’t take this pain anymore.”
4. Recognize and understand the nature of their impulsivity.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the human brain that is associated with impulsivity and decision making. Unfortunately, it is not fully developed in humans until the ages of 25 to 30.
Because of this lack of development, people ages 10 to 24 are characteristically impulsive, a personality trait that often accompanies suicidal behavior. A study conducted in 2001 on 13- to 34-year-olds who had attempted suicide found that approximately 50 percent of participants spent only 5 to 19 minutes in suicidal deliberation before their attempt.
With such limited forethought and little time spent contemplating the far-reaching consequences of their behavior, it would benefit parents to eliminate access to any and all potentially lethal objects.
5. Know the most common means of suicide for ages 10 to 24.
Knowing the most common means of suicide may not be something a parent would want to think about; however, it is crucial to safeguarding against potential tragedy.
- Suffocation: Hanging, strangulation, and asphyxiation
- Firearm: Intentional self-harm by other and unspecified firearm and gun discharge. The absolute safest way to prevent suicide by firearm is to remove firearms from the home, especially during a time of suicide risk. Secondary to lethal means removal is storing firearms in locked gun safes or gun cases as well as utilizing trigger locks. Click here for a comprehensive guide about the handling and storage of firearms.
- Poisoning: Illicit drug or pharmaceutical drug poisoning, intentional self-poisoning by exposure to other gases and vapors. Purchase medication lockboxes for both over-the-counter and prescription medication. Regardless of the status of your child’s suicide risk, every home in America needs to utilize this tool because of adolescent and young adult impulsivity. Lockboxes can be purchased at most drug stores and are easily accessible on Amazon. Remember to keep the key on your person at all times or the code completely secret.
6. Have crisis resources on hand and share them with your family.
It’s advised that these resources be saved or placed in an accessible place in order to reference during a crisis. Be sure to save these numbers in your contact list on your phone or in your notes.
- 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The National Suicide prevention lifeline is available 24/7 and provides confidential help for people in distress. If you are hard of hearing, you can chat with a Lifeline counselor 24/7 by online chat.
- Share this number with your kids: Text HOME to 741741. You do not have to be suicidal to utilize this text line. Younger generations are typically more comfortable texting rather than calling, and this is a great tool for every family to have. Any emotional distress will be assisted. There is no wrong way to utilize this text line. You will be connected to a trained crisis counselor. See this infographic for more information.
- Map out the nearest emergency rooms to your home. List their phone numbers and addresses in an accessible place: i.e., in phones, on the refrigerator, with the babysitter, etc.
7. In the event of a tragedy, reach out to local media outlets and encourage them to report suicide responsibly.
Sadly, suicide contagion is real. Research studies have identified a credible relationship between certain types of media coverage and increased suicidality in vulnerable individuals.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website states, “Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one's family, one's peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. The risk for suicide contagion as a result of media reporting can be minimized by factual and concise media reports of suicide. Reports of suicide should not be repetitive, as prolonged exposure can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion.”
Reportingonsuicide.org offers a wonderful downloadable PDF with instructions for media and online coverage of suicide.