No parent expects to bury their child, especially not as a result of suicide. But each year, suicide — which is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24 — leaves 5,000 families to mourn the death of their children.
Suicide is a major issue, and according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was released in March 2023, suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts have increased between 2011 and 2021. In fact, in 2021, 22% of high schoolers reported serious thoughts of suicide within the past year, up from 16% in 2011.
What has caused the uptick?
“A lot of the teens that I work with that do have suicidal ideations, a lot of it is due to stressors at home and at school,” says Cassidy Slade, Psy.D., LLP, of the Murray Center for Behavioral Wellness. Slade, who specializes in working with teens, says that students express academic stress and pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations, while others are dealing with bullying — all things that can lead to suicidal ideation.
Those who are depressed are at a risk for suicide, Slade adds.
Depression manifests in low moods, lack of motivation, appetite changes — eating more or less than normal — sleep disturbances, and anhedonia, which for example, is when a teen that loves playing football no longer wants to play and instead would rather lie in bed all day. Things that once gave them joy no longer do the trick.
“When someone is struggling with depression, for some people it does come out as anger and irritability,” Slade says. Some internalize depression while others externalize it and become more aggressive, which is common in males.
While depression is a risk factor for suicide, there are several warning signs to look out for. Here, Slade offers insight.
Seeing the signs
If your teen comes home from school and sequesters in their bedroom for hours and hours, take note. Isolation is a big behavioral warning sign of suicide.
In addition, if your teen is impulsive or taking big risks such as driving fast because they aren’t concerned by any negative outcomes or consuming lots of alcohol, they could be struggling with thoughts of suicide.
“We can’t control our thoughts,” she says. “We can control our behaviors. We can choose if we seek out resources. We can control if we act on those thoughts.”
Suicidal thoughts are frightening and intrusive, Slade adds. “I think a lot of people that struggle with suicidal thoughts genuinely think that the world would be better off without them. They are in so much mental and emotional turmoil where that’s the only way out.”
Statements such as, “I would be better off dead,” or “You would be fine if I wasn’t around,” should be taken seriously. Don’t brush them off. Instead, talk to your child to learn more about how they are feeling, or seek help from a professional.
“When I think of suicide, I think of two different types of thoughts: you have passive suicidal thoughts and then you have active suicidal thoughts. Passive suicidal thoughts are very common,” she says. Roughly 75-80% of people have experienced a passive thought at one point in their life, she adds.
“I know as parents it’s hard not to be terrified hearing that and I give parents a lot of psychoeducation. If we had to choose what type of suicidal thoughts your child was going to have, I would be saying passive,” Slade says.
With passive thoughts, they are not thinking about a plan. Active thoughts of suicide, such as, “I want to kill myself” are more concerning. If your teen is having active thoughts, Slade suggests asking questions.
“Ultimately, I tell people to be as direct as possible,” she says. Say, “have you thought of killing yourself?”
“A lot of times parents are like, well what if that makes them think about suicide? If you’re at the point where you’re asking about it, they’ve already thought about it.”
If your teen is struggling with depression, Slade suggests behavioral activation, which can disrupt negative thinking patterns and provide some pleasure. Try to encourage them to get up and engage in something they are interested in such as playing a game, walking the dog or even spending some time with you.
When it comes to assessing suicide risk, there are three things to consider: plan, access and intent, Slade says. Do they have a plan? Do they have access to that plan? Do you want to act on the plan?
Some teens may need to be hospitalized depending on the severity of their situation. However, many can stay out of the hospital with the help of a safety plan. Safety plans include locking up medications — including over-the-counter medicines, which are most commonly used in suicide — along with rules such as not allowing bedroom doors to be closed.
“When it comes to the safety plan, we are just trying to put some time in between having this thought and getting a material or item to act on this thought,” Slade says.
While this is a difficult situation to be in, Slade stresses that parents should remain calm and refrain from playing the “victim card.” Don’t ask what you did wrong or why your child did this to you.
Don’t go into problem-solving mode because no one can fix someone’s mental health, she adds. Never ask why your child is depressed or hurting themselves, either.
“It’s very accusatory and makes them feel like they are wrong,” she says. Instead of asking why, ask your child if there is anything you can do to help them.
Content sponsored by Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Learn more at flinnfoundation.org.