The CDC (2021) reported that “During 2019, approximately one in five (18.8%) youths had seriously considered attempting suicide, one in six (15.7%) had made a suicide plan, one in 11 (8.9%) had made an attempt, and one in 40 (2.5%) had made a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment”. In 2017, nearly 18% of high school students answered on the Texas Youth Risk Behavior Survey that they had experienced suicidal ideation or seriously considered attempting suicide (Texas Health and Human Services, 2020). The Texas HHS also reports the Texas rate of suicide attempts of high school students is higher than the national average by 66% and has been increasing since 2001 while the national average has been decreasing.
While suicide attempts by children and teens have been rare, that rate has been increasing in recent years so it is something parents and caregivers should be aware of. There are many risk factors that can contribute to a teen having thoughts about suicide, but one that is growing in prevalence is a mental health diagnosis. The CDC reports that nationally, 46 percent of suicide victims also have been diagnosed with mental health conditions. Common mental health diagnoses that often co-occur with suicidal ideation in teens are depression, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. With education, suicide for teens can be preventable and treated.
If you are a parent that has experienced your teen admitting to having suicidal thoughts, then it was probably a moment that seemed to come out of nowhere. Just like in adults, some events can trigger thoughts of suicide in teens. But teens are usually more private than adults, so adults may have a harder time noticing if they are struggling. Here are a few events to look out for that may trigger suicidal ideation in your teen:
A major life change - Teens experience changes and transitions in their life that can be traumatic for them, but their emotional regulation abilities are less developed than in adults. It can be helpful to check in with your teen if you know a big change has happened for them, such as divorce, moving, changing schools, change in the friend group, grief or loss of a loved one/friend, and questioning gender or sexuality.
A mental health crisis - The risk for suicide is 100 times greater immediately following discharge from a hospital (JAMA Psychiatry, 2019). One reason for this is that, sometimes, aftercare plans are not followed by the parents or caregiver, or the teen was not given proper recommendations for safety by the hospital staff. If your teen is experiencing a mental health crisis, such as a major depressive episode or panic attacks, then asking them about what they are feeling is recommended. If they don’t want to talk, try to see if there is someone they feel comfortable talking to and remove any object they can harm themselves with.
Overwhelming emotions - Teens are more sensitive to strong emotions and can be more easily overwhelmed by them than other age groups. Stress, confusion, fear, and doubt can lead teens to solving problems in an irrational manner because of this heightened emotionality. Any problems surrounding school or school-related stress should be monitored and talked about with your teen to give them proper tools for managing stress.
Passive suicidal ideation is the thought or idea of wanting to not be around anymore, without a plan or course of action. Common thoughts for passive suicidal ideation are “I just don’t want to be around anymore”, “Everyone would be better off without me”, or “I don’t want to deal with this”. For an age group that is already very private, it can be difficult to recognize passive ideation so it is crucial to check in with them often, especially if they are struggling. This is an important type to look for because persistent passive thoughts of suicide can get worse and lead to starting to seriously consider suicide.
Active suicidal ideation is a thought of suicide that coincides with an action or plan for committing suicide. Active suicidal ideation normally includes an instrument or tool for suicide, such as a weapon or pills. Active suicidal ideation should never be thought of as “a cry for attention” and should be taken very seriously.
Here are warning signs that your teen is having suicidal thoughts:
The following are factors that increase the likelihood of teen suicide:
Even if you suspect your teen is threatening suicide to get attention, ignoring it is problematic for two reasons. The first reason is that your teen really is having thoughts of suicide and is need of mental health treatment. The second reason to avoid ignoring your teen’s suicidal ideation is because, in doing so, it can make them believe that threatening suicide is an acceptable way to gain attention. Any threat of suicide, whether you believe it or not, should be taken seriously so your teen understands that suicidal ideation is very real and serious. Your teen should be evaluated by a crisis specialist or taken to the hospital immediately whenever thoughts of connecting with the community is a protective factor against suicidal ideation in teens because it makes them feel supported and understood. Involvement in volunteering groups, after school clubs, sports, or meetups increase self-esteem, confidence, and independence in teens. When teenagers feel that they belong, are understood, and have independence, then they are more likely to feel confident in handling challenges in their life.
It may seem like teenagers want to be alone all of the time, but that could not be further from the truth. Just as toddlers throw tantrums, teens assert their independence in similar ways. But dramatic scenes or rudeness on your teens part does not mean that they don’t want to be around you. Children and teens who are securely attached to their parents and family members are at significantly lower risk for suicidal ideation. This is because having someone to discuss stressful or challenging events with decreases feelings of being alone and helps finding solutions to their problems. Try going on walks with your teen, join in on their favorite activities, or start a family game night. The more quality time you spend with your teen and ask them about their life, the more likely they are to turn to you when they are struggling.
When teens are contemplating suicide, they are usually feeling alone without any support. Try to help your teen through some of the ideas above, but also take any signs of suicidal ideation seriously. More often than not, one should err on the side of caution and seek professional support.
Here at SUN Behavioral Texas, we provide professional care from master’s level clinicians to help teens deal with mental health challenges. Contact us today at 713-796-2273.
What are the stages of suicidal ideation?
There are three stages that comprise suicidal ideation.
Step one is ideation - The teen begins thinking dark thoughts about not living anymore, but fear outweighs the act.
Step two is planning - The teen has gotten over the fear of dying and begins to plan for the act, which can involve how to commit suicide, giving away personal items, writing suicide notes.
Step three is auto-pilot - At this point, the teen has committed themselves to going through with suicide and the decision goes unconscious. They can feel a sense of relief because the decision to end the pain has occurred. This step may give parents and mental health professionals a false sense that the teen is getting better.
What is the cause of suicidal ideation?
Having persistent thoughts, feelings, and ruminations about being unable to manage challenging mental, physical, social, or family issues is usually the cause of suicidal ideation.
What factors contribute to suicidal thoughts in an adolescents?
Suicidal thoughts in adolescents are a result of poor emotional regulation, impulsivity, mental health disorders, adverse life events, environmental stressors, and family factors.