Pay Attention to the Warning Signs of Suicide in Teens and Children

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As a parent or guardian, learn what to watch for and how to help a troubled teen or child who may be struggling with mental health.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people, after accidents. In Delaware, 8 of out 100,000 teens ages 15–19 take their own lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s below the national average of 11 suicides per 100,000 teens.

Meghan Walls, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours Children’s Health System in Wilmington, offers insights into the warning signs of teen suicide and how to help troubled adolescents.

At what age do teens develop suicidal thoughts?

Suicide is seen as young as elementary school-aged children. By middle and high school, about 10 to 15 percent of kids have suicidal thoughts.

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What are the symptoms?

Certain signs are easy to see—telling others that they want to die, writing goodbye letters, giving things away. Other signs might be a change in behavior, such as social isolation; depressed mood; sudden elation after depressed mood; and significant increases or decreases in sleep. However, none of these alone signals suicidality. If parents or teachers notice changes, it’s important to be direct. Ask questions about feeling suicidal plainly, such as “Are you thinking about or do you want to hurt or kill yourself?”

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Do external factors like bullying, drugs and alcohol, sexual identity, and problems at home play a role?

External factors can certainly play a role, but often it is a mix of factors, and not just one singular factor that contributes. Prolonged stress can contribute. While we don’t know the exact other factors that play a role, LGBTQ+ youth are about three times more likely to attempt suicide. Other things that put kids in a higher risk are having a diagnosis of a mental illness, previous suicide attempts and access to lethal means, such as guns in the home.

How can caretakers help?

Pay attention to some of the signs of suicide and be willing to have open, honest conversations. If you think your child would be afraid to talk to you, make sure they have a trusted adult—a counselor, an aunt or uncle, a mentor—they are willing to talk to when things are difficult. There is no evidence to suggest that talking about suicide leads to suicide, so grown-ups need to be willing to ask that hard question. It’s also a great idea to have your local crisis numbers on hand. Nationally, the suicide text line has been really great as a resource for grown-ups to give to kids (Text “help” to 741-741).

How can healthcare professionals make a difference?

Continue to destigmatize mental health issues. Screen all kids age 11 and older for depression and suicidality. Be open to having conversations about self-harm, without getting uncomfortable. You could save a child’s life.

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