Parents: Do you know the warning signs of suicide?

There has been a lot of talk about the Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why,” in which a teen girl leaves behind pre-taped messages for her classmates explaining what led her to take her own life. Her devastated parents are left to piece together why the tragedy happened and how they could have stopped it. No matter where you stand on the content of the show, the important takeaway for parents, teachers and others who work with adolescents is that teen suicide is a very real and growing concern.  And it is preventable.  That’s why knowing what signs to look for is so important.

Teens and depression

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), between 10 and 15 percent of teenagers experience symptoms of depression at any time. When compared to the general population, teens are more likely to suffer depression – and for longer periods of a year or more.  Teens also have a higher suicide rate than the general population.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in America. For teens, suicide climbs to the third-leading cause of death for those aged 10-14. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those between 15 and 34 years of age.

Experiencing suicidal thoughts and having a desire to hurt one’s self is not uncommon for teens today. A survey conducted by the CDC found that 17 percent of high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year. Furthermore, 13.6 percent of those students made a suicide plan, 8 percent attempted suicide one or more times, and 2.7 percent required medical attention due to a suicide attempt.

Know the risk factors

While no one is exempt from the intrusion of depression or suicidal thoughts, teens may have additional factors that make them vulnerable. Family history and exposure to the suicide of friends or family may put them at higher risk.  Additional stressors such as school pressures, bullying, physical or sexual abuse, and sexual or gender identity issues also can impact the emotional and psychological wellbeing of teens.

The use of alcohol and drugs is also a risk factor.  Using substances may increase depressive symptoms and lower clear thinking. Teens who use alcohol and drugs are at an increased risk for suicidal behaviors. Oftentimes, teens and adults alike turn to substance use as a means of coping and self-soothing. Many underlying emotional issues may fuel substance use. Addressing the use clearly and directly is a critical element to improving overall health and wellbeing.  Appropriate chemical dependency treatment should be pursued.

Listen and discuss

The nature of discussing suicidal thoughts and behaviors can be uncomfortable for both teens and their parents who don’t know what to say.  Many people believe that talking about suicide and using the word will make things worse. That myth and many others must be dispelled. Recognizing risk factors, identifying warning signs, and addressing them directly are critical steps to reach teens who are feeling alone and desperate for relief.

What can you do?

Showing concern and support to a friend or family member is always the right first step. Talking to your loved one and providing a safe space for them to share their pain, free of judgment, will open new solutions to their existing struggles. Listen to what your loved one is saying and attend to the emotional needs that are presented to you. When feelings of safety are challenged, take the appropriate steps to safeguard your loved one’s environment.  This includes securing firearms, medications, and other household items that could pose a danger.

Where to seek help

Always encourage your loved one to seek support and treatment from professionals.  Several resources provide around-the-clock access to experts who can provide direct crisis intervention with a suicidal individual, as well as support a family member through conversation.  These include:

Memorial Hermann’s Mental Health Crisis Clinics can help teens and others who are experiencing  a crisis situation.  To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call 713-338-MHCC (6422).

This blog post was written by Mariam Massoud, LMFT, education specialist, Memorial Hermann Behavioral Health Services.

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Tashika Varma