Preventing Teen Suicide

By Jane Amsden
LCSW-R, Program Director of Mental Health Counseling & Treatment

In America, one person dies by suicide every 13 minutes. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it is the 2nd leading cause of death for teens. The biggest risks include prior attempts, a current mood disorder, substance abuse, and access to means. Research also suggests that males are more likely to complete a suicide than females.

Teens can be a tough group to engage. The psychologist David Crenshaw calls them “fawns in gorilla suits.” However, taking the time to talk, listen, and support what they feel is essential. Teens need to know that those around them believe them and believe in them, even (and especially) at a time in life when they may have difficulty believing in themselves.

Most people who become suicidal will, when discussing their feelings, acknowledge that if the main stressors in their life were resolved, they would not feel suicidal. However, most feel suicidal because they do not see any hope of resolution. Talking a situation through with another person often yields thoughts, ideas, and new perspectives that had not occurred to the person before. Options are identified and despair is lessened.

Trained therapists play a vital role in helping identify and explore what a teen may be experiencing. In therapy, counselors can ask the direct questions that others might want to shy away from like, “Do you want to kill yourself?” and “How would you do it?” These are critical questions to get the topic out in the open and possibly save a person’s life. In addition, nationally recognized tools can help reveal thoughts and plans for suicide in individuals of all ages, such as the CAMS model (Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality) and the Columbia Suicide Rating Scale. And keep in mind that while it may become clear that your teen is in need of professional help, it is also important to consider yourself and other family members’ needs and seek support through individual, group, or family counseling.

Suicide is often an impulsive act, and teens are usually an impulsive group of people. Therefore, finding ways to slow down a possibly lethal impulse is key and limiting access to means of committing suicide is critical. Intoxication increases the chances of impulsive behavior, so teaching and supporting abstinence from substance use is important.

For people under the age of 24, hanging, using firearms, and overdosing are the most common forms of suicide. However, don’t assume that hiding pills, liquor or weapons is enough; kids know where everything is kept. The use of firearms leaves perhaps the least opportunity for intervention or rescue–firearms should always be locked and put away, as should medications and other potential hazards. Parents need to take extra steps to secure any means to suicide–in the few extra minutes it may take for a distraught teen to reach the means to harm or kill him/herself, things could change. The phone could ring. A friend or family member could appear. A distraction could create a delay long enough to prevent the impulse from becoming action.

Some of the warning signs for suicide include:

  • Visible changes in behavior from what is normal or usual for that person, including increased irritability or hostility, or social withdrawal
  • Trauma or stress that the person does not seem able to get past
  • Talking about or threatening to hurt oneself
  • Seeking means to hurt or kill oneself
  • Talking about or writing about death, dying, or suicide
  • Statements such as, “I will just end it all”
  • Hopelessness, feeling trapped with no options
  • Seeing no reason for living or purpose in life
  • Being unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
  • New or increased alcohol or drug use
  • Acting reckless or doing risky things with no care for the outcome

Remember, suicide is preventable! Take the time to read, listen, and learn what you can do to help save a life.
If someone you know is in immediate danger, always call 911. Other important numbers are: the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) and the Putnam County Crisis Hotline at 845-225-1222.