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
Parents Can Make a Difference
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 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 who 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 from 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: http://www.suicidology.org
Light for Life Program: http://www.yellowribbon.org/
National Institute of Mental Health Suicide Prevention Resources http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml
National Mental Health Association: www.nmha.org
S.O.S High School Suicide Prevention Program: http://www.mentalhealthscreening.org/highschool
Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE): www.save.org
Suicide Prevention Therapist Finder (SPTF): http://www.HelpPRO.com/SPTF
Excellent article. Great information put in a concise manner. We need to get this message out to prevent the tragedy of suicide that can be prevented by public awareness and good counseling.Thank you!
My older son lost his best friend in High School to suicide. James took his own life at 15, just three weeks shy of his 16th birthday. It truly is a tragic epidemic that does not seem to have an end in sight. After 17 years as a firefighter/paramedic, I have seen my share of suicides, both attempted and completed. I am retired, and in Grad School, with the goal of CBT Therapist/Counselor, specializing in teens/preteens. Thank you for the article, as there can never really be enough awareness/education to this problem.
This is an amazing must read for every parent! Thank you for putting this together in such a clear and useful format.
Thank you for providing this material. I am not a parent [yet], but the material presents qualitative data so parents can understand.
I lost a friend to suicide, some years’ ago. As I came to understand, he was ‘stuck’ in the personal issues that encompassed his life. . . we live, we learn (hopefully)
Excellent article with important information. You may want to add our Suicide Prevention Therapist Finder (SPTF) at http://www.HelpPRO.com/SPTF as a resource. Thanks.
William L. Blout, LICSW
Thank you for sharing this resource. We will update the blog post with this information
I am new to the area and may be in need of someone that specializes in suicide counseling in Los Angeles.
with loving kindness
Excellent article and easy to read. If only getting mental health services for our children was not so difficult.
This is so offensive to people who have lost teenagers to suicide. As if I didn’t work my ass off trying to save my child. As if I could have just chosen more suicide resistant attributes to imbue in my child. If I could have been the perfect parent and done all the right things, she wouldn’t have died. It’s me. I did this. It must feel safe and powerful and a bit smug to think that this tragedy will never fall upon those who are enlightened and successful at enacting this exhaustive list. Suicide scares the shit out of people. I highly recommend avoiding my tragedy.
Even as a stone cold atheist, I like the expression, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We control a tiny fraction of our lives, and even less of our children’s lives. It’s terrifying.
Dear Kristi Ann,
Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my blog post. Let me begin by offering my heartfelt condolences to you and your family. I sincerely apologize that my comments were offensive. No offense, however, indirect was intended. The post was not written to imply that parents who lose their children to death by suicide are somehow responsible. They most certainly are not and I am sorry if my comments seem to imply that. I agree with you that parents are driven to do the very best that they can for their children and that suicide is tremendously frightening and tragic. The goal of my post was to highlight this very serious issue and to offer some guidance based on the best available psychological evidence. Again, I know that suicide can touch all of our lives and it is enormously painful when that occurs.
Nadine Kaslow, PhD, ABPP, Former President, American Psychological Association
I have a 16 year old son, I just read.his text to a friend that he has been having suicidel thought 1-2 times a week and is scared. He also devolved to me in Aug. That he had a thought to just step out in front of traffic. Sense that time I tried to get him to go to counseling, but he won’t. He also have reassured me that he ha sent had these thought again. But now i know.thats not true. I don’t know if I should tell him I read the text and encourage him again to go to counseling or go to his counsler at school, or go talk to the friend he confided in, or that friends mom, or if I should take him to the doctor?
His Dad has been diagnosed with severe depression, he takes medication for. Im worried he has inherited depression. But how do I get him to go talk to someone?
Thank you for reaching out. No emotional crisis is more urgent than suicidal thoughts and behavior in a loved one. If you suspect your son is considering self-harm or suicide, don’t wait to intervene. If possible, take him to the emergency room for urgent attention. Medical staff in the ER can help you deal with the crisis and keep your loved one safe. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also a valuable resource. If you’re concerned about a loved one’s mental state or personal safety, and unable to take him or her to the emergency room, you can talk to a skilled counselor by calling 1-800-273-TALK. You can also use APA’s “Psychologist Locator” tool to find a practicing psychologist in your area http://locator.apa.org/. You can narrow down by specialty to find the best person for your needs.
Thanks you and I admire you to have the courage the talk about this,This was a very meaningful post for me. Thank you.
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