Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. When that child’s death is self-inflicted, families wonder what signs they missed and if they could have done something to change the outcome.
Serious thoughts of suicide plague nearly 19% of high school students, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and among those ages 10-14, suicide is the second leading cause of death. It’s the third leading cause of death for those ages 15-24.
As a parent, you might be quick to say, “that would never happen to my child,” but it could. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself about the risk factors and warning signs of suicide.
Chelsea Zuteck, a 15-year licensed clinical social worker at Horizon Counseling Center, says that each person’s situation is unique but there are some common themes when it comes to youth suicide.
“As a broad statement, I would say that sometimes teenagers have trouble with coping with stressors that may be associated with being a teen such as dealing with rejection, failure, breakups, school difficulties, things like that,” Zuteck says.
Brain development plays a role, too. The frontal lobe, a center for impulse control, does not fully develop until a person is in their 20s.
“More times than not, the individual does have some sort of mental health diagnosis. A very common one is depression,” Zuteck notes, but it could be oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, mood disorders or anxiety.
Statistically, 46% of those who die by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition — but 90% may have experienced symptoms, according to NAMI.
Other factors include substance abuse, family history of mood disorders or suicidal attempts, experiences and trauma, or if someone has witnessed violence or been bullied. Social media plays a huge factor in bullying. Kids no longer just get bullied on the playground. It follows them home, which means kids have no reprieve, she adds.
“From my experience, I’ve noticed that teens may have some impulsivity and they might not recognize that the things that are affecting their lives are a temporary problem,” Zuteck says.
Suicide, however, is a permanent response to a situation, and one that parents need to educate themselves about.
Here, Zuteck shines light on the warning signs to look out for and how to help your child.
We all know that teens are moody, but if your child isn’t acting like they usually do and is isolating or withdrawing from friends, take note. On the flipside, if you notice that your teen who has been really depressed seems suddenly at peace, this could be a sign that they have made a suicide plan and is at peace with it.
Giving away belongings for no reason, preoccupation with death or dying, talking or writing about suicide and making statements such as, “I wish I wasn’t here anymore,” or, “The world would be better off without me” are also signs that your teen might be contemplating suicide.
Don’t dismiss the signs, Zuteck says.
“I can say within my own professional capacity I’ve seen where parents think the child or the person is seeking attention,” she says.
That’s not usually the case. In reality, your child is indicating that something is very wrong — and they need help coping.
Helping your child
Talk, talk and talk some more. Don’t shy away from discussing mental health and suicide with your child. Be open with your child about your own experiences. Tell them if you’ve ever seen a therapist. In doing so, you’re leading by example — and they can see that treating mental health isn’t something to be frowned upon.
Pay attention to any behavior differences, comments or isolation. It’s important to monitor social media, too, especially when it comes to bullying.
Safely monitor and have storage for firearms, alcohol and medications — things that could play a role in suicide. “Better safe than sorry,” she says.
When it comes to thoughts of suicide, therapy is essential.
“I think it’s good to have someone unbiased who is there to listen to you, hear your perspective,” she says.
Therapists are trained to help manage different mental health issues, and they can help your teen build a toolbox to cope with difficult situations.
“Suicide, while connected with mental health, can be associated with not knowing how to cope with what’s going on,” she says, so therapists can create a safety plan when someone is suicidal — to know what to do and who to contact. They are also able to provide an evaluation to determine if they need a higher level of care.
“I think it’s important for everybody to know that if you or someone you care about is suicidal, having thoughts of wishing they weren’t alive, wanting to harm themselves, especially if there is a plan, you should take them to the nearest ER,” she says.
Want to learn more about youth suicide? Visit parentguidance.org for free courses on suicide prevention, bullying, how to connect with your child and more.
If you, your child or someone you know is struggling, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Content sponsored by Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Visit flinnfoundation.org.