September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In this blog post, APA President-elect Nadine Kaslow and her colleagues offer parents advice on how to prevent teen suicide.
By Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, Polina Kitsis, Mili Anne Thomas, MA, and Dorian A. Lamis, PhD
Every day, about 12 youth die by suicide. For every adolescent death by suicide you hear about, about 25 suicide attempts are made. These are staggering statistics. We know that families, schools, peer groups, and communities are dramatically impacted when young people engage in suicidal behavior. We want to help you prevent these tragedies.
Parents Can Make a Difference
Parents can help prevent suicide by recognizing warning signs, identifying risk factors (characteristics that may lead a young person to engage in suicidal behaviors), promoting protective factors (characteristics that help people deal with stress and reduce their chances of engaging in suicidal behaviors), and knowing how to talk to their children and seek mental health services. You can empower yourself and your teen by following these 7 steps.
1. Know your facts
Information is power and too much misinformation about suicide can have tragic consequences. Separating myth from fact can empower you to help your teen in distress.
Myth – Suicide in youth is not a problem
Truth – Suicide is a major problem affecting youth; it is the 3rd leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds
Myth – Asking about suicide causes suicidal behavior
Truth – Addressing the topic of suicide in a caring, empathetic, and nonjudgmental way shows that you are taking your child seriously and responding to their emotional pain
Myth – Only a professional can identity a child at risk for suicidal behavior
Truth – Parents and other caregivers often are the first to recognize warning signs and most able to intervene in a loving way
2. Recognize the warning signs
Studies show that 4 out of 5 teen suicide attempts are preceded by clear warning signs, so make sure to know them. A warning sign does not mean your child will attempt suicide, but do not ignore warning signs. Respond to your child immediately, thoughtfully and with loving concern. Don’t dismiss a threat as a cry for attention!
- Changes in personality: sadness, withdrawal, irritability, anxiety, exhaustion, indecision
- Changes in behavior: deterioration in social relationships and school and/or work performance, reduced involvement in positive activities
- Sleep disturbance: insomnia, oversleeping; nightmares
- Changes in eating habits: loss of appetite, weight loss, or overeating
- Fear of losing control: erratic behavior, harming self or others
3. Know the risk factors
Recognize certain situations and conditions that are associated with an increased risk of suicide.
- Previous suicide attempt(s)
- Mental health disorders (depression, anxiety)
- Alcohol and other substance abuse
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, loneliness, worthlessness, low self-esteem
- Loss of interest in friends, hobbies, or activities previously enjoyed
- Aggressive behavior
- Bullying or being a bully at school or in social settings
- Disruptive behavior, including disciplinary problems at school or at home
- High risk behaviors (drinking and driving, poor decision-making)
- Recent/serious loss (death, divorce, separation, broken romantic relationship)
- Family history of suicide
- Family violence (domestic violence, child abuse or neglect)
- Sexual orientation and identity confusion (lack of support or bullying during the coming out process)
- Access to lethal means like firearms, pills, knives or illegal drugs
- Stigma associated with seeking mental health services
- Barriers to accessing mental health services (lack of bilingual service providers, unreliable transportation, financial costs)
4. Know the protective factors
These factors have been shown to have protective effects against teen suicide:
- Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and handling problems in a nonviolent way
- Strong connections to family, friends, and community support
- Restricted to lethal means of suicide
- Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self-preservation
- Easy access to services
- Support through ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
5. Take preventive measures
You are not powerless; you can guard your teen against the possibility of suicide.
- Interact with your teen positively (give consistent feedback, compliments for good work)
- Increase his/her involvement in positive activities (promote involvement in clubs/sports)
- Appropriately monitor your teen’s whereabouts and communications (texting, Facebook, Twitter) with the goal of promoting safety
- Be aware of your teen’s social environment (friends, teammates, coaches) and communicate regularly with other parents in your community.
- Communicate regularly with your teen’s teachers to ensure safety at school
- Limit your teen’s access to alcohol, prescription pills, illegal drugs, knives and guns
- Talk with your teen about your concerns; ask him/her directly about suicidal thoughts
- Explain the value of therapy and medication to manage symptoms.
- Address your concerns with other adults in your child’s life (teachers, coaches, family)
- Discuss your concerns with his/her pediatrician to seek mental health referrals
6. Talk to your teen about suicide
Talking to your teen about a topic like suicide can seem almost impossible. Have this important discussion with your teen by using these tips.
- Talk in a calm, non-accusatory manner
- Express loving concern
- Convey how important he/she is to you
- Focus on your concern for your teen’s well-being and health
- Make “I” statements to convey you understand the stressors he/she may be experiencing
- Encourage professional help-seeking behaviors (locate appropriate resources)
- Reassure your adolescent that seeking services can change his/her outlook
7. Last but not least, seek mental health services
Mental health professionals can be essential partners in teen suicide prevention.
a) Take appropriate action to protect your child
- If you feel that something is “just not right”
- If you notice warning signs
- If you recognize your child has many of the risk factors and few of the protective factors listed above
b) Find a mental health provider who has experience with youth suicide
- Choose a mental health provider with whom your child and you are comfortable
- Participate actively in your child’s therapy
c) If danger is imminent, call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room
- 1-800-273-TALK (8255) – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- American Association of Suicidology
- APA’s “Find a Psychologist” Tool
- Light for Life Program
- National Institute of Mental Health Suicide Prevention Resources
- National Mental Health Association
- S.O.S High School Suicide Prevention Program
- Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE)
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center
- Suicide Prevention Therapist Finder