Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is currently the 3rd leading cause of death among young adults and adolescents 15 to 24 years of age, following unintentional injuries and homicide. Suicide is often a desperate attempt at escaping a seemingly impossible situation or to find relief from bad thoughts or feelings. These feelings could be rejection, hurt, shame, guilt, despair, loneliness, isolation or a host of others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, scientific evidence has shown that almost all people who take their own lives have a diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorder. Those who suffer from depression and other disorders are less able to cope with situations than others and treatment is necessary to help those suffering see that there are many alternatives and better ways to deal with their problems. In other words, the feelings that often lead to suicide are highly treatable if the help is sought by the individual or if others can recognize the warning signs.

Researchers estimate that there are between 8-25 attempted suicides for each teen suicide death and that four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warnings. There are many behavioral indicators that can help parents or friends recognize the threat of suicide in a loved one. Since mental and substance-related disorders so frequently accompany suicidal behavior, many of the cues to be looked for are symptoms associated with such disorders as depression, bipolar disorder anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use, disruptive behavior disorders, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia.

Some common symptoms of these disorders include:

– Extreme personality changes

– Loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable

– Significant loss or gain in appetite

– Difficulty falling asleep or wanting to sleep all day

– Fatigue or loss of energy

Feelings of worthlessness or guilt

– Withdrawal from family and friends

Neglect of personal appearance or hygiene

– Sadness, irritability, or indifference

Extreme anxiety or panic

Self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or cutting, for example)

Poor school performance

Difficulty concentrating

Tragically, many of these signs go unrecognized and while suffering from one of these symptoms certainly does not necessarily mean that one is suicidal, it’s always best to communicate openly with a loved one who has one or more of these behaviors, especially if they are unusual for that person.

There are also some more obvious signs of the potential for committing suicide. Putting one’s affairs in order, such as giving or throwing away favorite belongings, is a strong clue. And it can’t be stressed more strongly that any talk of death or suicide should be taken seriously and paid close attention to. It is a sad fact that while many of those who commit suicide talked about it beforehand, only 33 percent to 50 percent were identified by their doctors as having a mental illness at the time of their death and only 15 percent of suicide victims were in treatment at the time of their death, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Approximately one-third of teens who die by suicide have made a previous suicide attempt, so a history of suicide attempts is a cause for careful monitoring of behavior.

If you or is someone you know exhibits any of the warning signs of suicide, get help right away. Talk to someone you trust as soon as you can, such as a parent, teacher, school counselor, or therapist. If you are uncomfortable talking about your feelings with someone you know, call a suicide crisis line (such as 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-999-9999) or 911. These toll-free lines are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by trained professionals who offer confidential support to help you work through tough situations. Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services has a team of child, adolescent and adult psychologists and psychiatrists available to provide support and can help teens build their own coping skills for dealing with problems.

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D

Clinical Psychologist