While teenagers are known for their hormonal changes and mood swings, it is important to watch for prolonged negative moods because those moods may be warning signs of suicide. According to the Children’s Hospital in Boston, as many as 12 to 25 percent of teens experience some form of suicidal thoughts at some point(1). Many different reasons for teen suicide exist; however, a suicide may be preventable if warning signs are detected early and intervention is implemented.
When teens are depressed, it is an especially important time to watch them closely for warning signs of suicide. Because mental illness is present in more than 90% of all suicide cases(2), depression is most likely the first warning sign of a potentially suicidal teen.
If a teen is exhibiting any of the following signs of suicide (presented by the American Psychiatric Association)(3) it is important to get help immediately:
- Talking about death or suicide. Even if a teen jokes about committing suicide or says things such as, “Nobody cares about me” or “I can’t take this anymore”, it may be a warning sign of suicide.
- Talking about wanting to go away.
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Withdrawing from favorite hobbies and activities.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Complaining of physical pains such as headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue.
- Talking about feeling guilty for something.
- Giving away possessions.
- Having trouble concentrating.
- Exhibiting self-destructive behaviors such as drinking alcohol, driving recklessly, taking drugs, or acting promiscuously.
- Changing personal appearance. A teen who is contemplating suicide may not bathe regularly, change clothes regularly, or brush their teeth or hair regularly.
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. For example, life-changes that may seem overwhelming to a teen are divorce, pregnancy, or a death in the family.
- Eating too much or too little.
- Hurting themselves. For example, cutting body parts.
- Becoming suddenly cheerful after being depressed.
- Having troubles with boyfriends or girlfriends.
- Grades dropping in school.
- Acting like a rebel in or out of school.
- Trying to access pills or a gun.
Other warning signs may be:
- Showing an unhealthy fear of war, AIDS, or violence(4).
- Writing poems or essays about death(5).
- Drawing pictures about death(6).
- Rejecting praise or award(7).
- Having troubles dealing with sexual orientation(8).
If any of the warning signs listed above are present in a teen, help must be sought immediately.
It is scary to think that teens may be exhibiting warning signs for suicide. However, it is even more horrific to think that teens may decide to commit suicide on an impulse. These “in the moment” teen suicides can take place in a sudden situation where they are desperately upset. For example, they may have found out they were pregnant, they had a breakup with their boyfriend or girlfriend, or their sexual orientation was revealed by someone. Unfortunately, the only warning sign of these unplanned suicides is sometimes depression(9). If a teen is showing signs of depression, it is important to seek professional help.
Most Preventative Measure
The most important thing that parents can do with their teens to prevent planned or unplanned suicide is to let them know that communication is always open. Teens need to know that no matter how bad the situation seems, they can always count on their parents to help them get through.