Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. It’s a harrowing reality that devastates families, friends, and communities every day. Too often, young people do not have the tools they need to cope with negative feelings—and make the choice to end their life. This leaves many loved ones wondering, “Why?”
There is not one, single cause of suicide. Rather, there are many reasons why teenagers commit suicide, and these reasons are always unique to their situation and story. However, there are common “risk factors” that can make a teenager more prone to having suicidal thoughts. These risk factors are essentially the things (in their environment, biology, and brain, for example) that increase the likelihood a teen will make a suicide attempt.
Before we discuss the common reasons and risk factors behind suicide, let’s first understand a bit more about this topic—which, undoubtedly, is sensitive and overwhelming for many. Suicide means ending one’s life intentionally. However, most of the time, it does not happen immediately. Sometimes, there are signs. For example, most people who commit suicide first have thoughts of wanting to die, called “suicide ideation.” They may talk or write about it. Some people also exhibit behaviors of self-harm, which can, in turn, lead to causing one’s own death.
If you are concerned about your loved one attempting suicide, know that it’s never too early to reach out for help. Suicide in teenagers can be prevented. If you suspect your teenager is exhibiting suicidal ideation, you should have them evaluated by a professional immediately. And if your loved one has any of the below risk factors of suicide, you should consider a mental health screening for them, too.
Common Risk Factors of Suicide in Teens:
A teenager might be more vulnerable to suicide if they:
- Have a mental health disorder, such as depression.
- Have a history of trauma.
- Struggle with chronic stress.
- Have behavioral problems.
- Feel persistent guilt or shame, or have low self-esteem.
- Abuse drugs and alcohol.
- Have a family history of suicide.
- Are a victim of bullying or abuse.
- Do not have support from friends or family.
- Struggle with their sexual orientation/gender identity (or are not accepted because of it).
- Are discriminated against due to their race or ethnic background.
- Recently lost a loved one.
- Were separated from loved ones due to incarceration, deployment, divorce, deportation, etc.
- Have access to weapons, firearms, and/or lethal drugs.
- Have previously attempted suicide.
These are just some of the most common risk factors that can cause suicidal thoughts in teens. However, there are also protective factors against suicide – in other words, factors that make teens less likely to commit suicide, protecting their life. If your teen has any of these protective factors, they will have more opportunities to work through and overcome their struggles.
Protective Factors Against Suicide:
- Strong connections with friends, family, and/or their community.
- Good problem-solving skills and coping mechanisms.
- Access to appropriate health care and therapy.
- Effective care for any mental health and/or substance use disorders.
What Causes Suicide in Teens?
As noted above, there is not one single cause of suicide. Everyone has their own struggles that can lead up to this choice. However, there are some common reasons for teen suicide, such as:
- A stressful life event or tragedy (such as the death of a loved one)
- Intense or prolonged feelings of distress, anxiety, or anger
- History of trauma
- Substance abuse
- Impulsive behaviors
- Mental health conditions
When people experience a tragic event, or have been through trauma, they may experience suicidal thoughts. However, this is not always the case. In fact, for most people, stressful life events do not lead to suicide. These events can, however, increase a person’s risk.
This is particularly true for people with mental health conditions and substance use disorders. Teens who are struggling with symptoms of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, can be triggered by stressful life events, therefore causing suicidal thoughts. Further, suicidal ideation is a common occurrence among people who struggle with symptoms of mental illness more generally – these teens have a desire to escape their negative feelings and thought patterns, but do not know a way out. Rather than asking for help, they may struggle silently until they feel they can’t anymore.
Research shows that the vast majority of suicide deaths (up to 90 percent) happen among people who have struggled with symptoms of a mental illness. Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, excessive worry or fear, persistent sadness, and the inability to cope with stress, among others. You can learn about the most common signs of mental illness in teenagers here.
Mental health conditions can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and depression, taking away a person’s will to live. Similarly, substance use disorders can trigger these feelings – particularly during withdrawal – and lead many young people to the same path. Studies show thathttps://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/substance-abuse/Pages/default.aspx substance abuse is a factor in roughly 1 in 3 youth suicides, often because the drugs are used to overdose.
Sometimes, even when teenagers do not have a diagnosed mental health condition, they may still struggle internally and may not feel they have the tools to cope. For example, teenagers who go through a major life change – think, their parents’ divorce, moving across the country, bullying at school, rejection of their gender identity, a discriminatory or racist act, a death in the family – are also at greater risk of attempting suicide.
For these reasons, it is ever-important for parents to be present, supportive, encouraging, and involved. When a teenager is struggling, family support can make a world of difference.
What Can Parents Do?
If you are concerned about your teen’s mental health, the first (and perhaps the most immediate) thing you can do is to open up the conversation with your teenager. Ask them questions. Check in on them. You can say things like: “Hey, you’ve been a bit quiet lately. What is going on?” or even, “I’m worried about you. Are you depressed?” Some parents might directly ask their teens if they are thinking about hurting themselves, or considering suicide. Being open and honest in your questions will encourage your son or daughter to do the same.
Just remember to be empathetic, non-judgmental, and lead with love and concern. And always take your teen seriously—do not shrug off any of their troubles. Make sure your teen knows that it’s okay to talk about their feelings and mental health more generally, and normalize these conversations in your home. Be sure to make your teen feel safe as you have these conversations at home, too.
You should also make sure your home is a safe place. Ensure your teen will not have access to any guns or other weapons in the home. Dispose of any prescription drugs (even unused and expired) or make sure your child cannot access them.
Of course, do not hesitate to seek professional help. If your teen is showing any signs of suicidal behavior, you should contact a clinical professional immediately. You may speak with your child’s pediatrician, who can refer you to a mental health specialist, or contact a mental health treatment provider like Turnbridge. Turnbridge specializes in teen and young adult mental health disorders, and is available at 877-581-1793.
Even if your teen is not showing signs of suicide, but you know your teen is struggling with risk factors like depression, bullying, or discrimination, you should still consider seeking the help of a clinical professional. Therapy for teenagers is becoming increasingly common, and beneficial, in a time where mental health disorders among youth are skyrocketing.
If you do not know where to begin, contact Turnbridge for support. We can discuss your concerns with you, provide a mental health evaluation for your teen, and coordinate an individualized treatment plan, if and when you are ready.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and we are working hard to educate others on the reality of suicide in youth. Click here to get the facts about teen suicide.