Part of my job as a mental health counselor involves receiving calls from parents concerned about their teenagers following a suicide attempt. Parents sometimes call seeking help for their teens and other times they are looking for help for themselves to manage feelings.
A teen’s suicide attempt can significantly impact the whole family. Because there is often a stigma around suicide (a feeling of humiliation or shame) families find themselves wondering how to move forward following the incident. Parents feel unsure about whether they should talk to school personnel, how they should explain their teen’s absence from school or family functions when the teen has been hospitalized, and how to talk about the incident with the other children in the household. Parents call in a state of alarm, often fearful that their teen will try to commit suicide again or to discuss how powerless they felt in the aftermath of the attempt. Teens present for therapy usually wanting to examine ways to not be suicidal anymore.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people age 15-24 years old and results in more than 4,600 deaths every year. My goal in this post is to identify some risk factors and warning signs of suicidal behavior and offer some ideas for getting help.
Risk factors that may increase the likelihood of suicide
These are some of the conditions that may increase the chances of a suicide attempt.
- Having a mental health condition such as depression
- Conflict with friends or family members
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Exposure to the suicide of a friend or family member
- History of trauma, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect
- Being bullied
- Having a family history of suicide
- Previous history of suicide attempts
Warning signs of possible suicidal intention
Although there is no guaranteed method for predicting suicide, the following mnemonic phrase created by the American Association of Suicidology can be used to help identify warning signs for suicide potential. Keep in mind, however, that each person is different and some people with suicidal intentions may not show any of these symptoms.
- “IS PATH WARM”
- “I” is “ideation.” Is the teen actively thinking about suicide or expressing thoughts about suicide by saying such things as “I’m going to kill myself” or frequently talking about wanting to die?
- “S” is “substance abuse.” Has the teen started using alcohol or drugs to cope or have a history of problems using substances excessively?
- “P” is “purposelessness.” Does the teen think there is no reason to keep living or seem concerned about not having a purpose?
- “A” is “anger.” Is the teen showing moments of rage or finding anger difficult to control? Is the teen looking for revenge on someone perceived to have caused their problems?
- “T” is “trapped.” Does the teen talk about feeling like there aren’t any other choices or options except for death?
- “H” is “hopelessness.” Is the teen negative about themself, others, or the future and seem reluctant to change in positive ways?
- “W” is “withdrawing.” Is the teen withdrawing from from family, friends, and social interactions or talking about wanting to?
- “A” is “anxiety.” Does the teen seem more anxious than usual or have trouble sleeping or relaxing?
- “R” is “recklessness.” Is the teen engaging in life threatening activities without thinking about consequences? Teens do engage in risky behavior as part of this phase of human development, however, do the teen’s actions seem excessively dangerous or represent a change from the teen’s usual behaviors?
- “M” is “mood.” Does the teen’s mood shift dramatically or excessively? Teens often have mood swings but do the mood changes seem out of the ordinary for the teen’s personality?
Protective Factors, Prevention, and Treatment
While there are circumstances that increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt, there are also conditions that may help protect people from such incidents.
- A sense of connection with family or social supports
- Connection with a healthy support network can decrease feelings of isolation
- Medical and mental health treatment
- Receiving professional help can add to sense of support and stability
- Conflict resolution skills
- Teens with abilities to solve problems may be less likely to consider suicide as an option
- Cultural or religious beliefs against suicide
- Beliefs about what may happen to one’s soul following suicide may deter a teen from taking their life
- *While medication may be an option to help stabilize moods and emotions, there may be an increased risk of suicide for teens with some medications. Teens may require additional medication management and supervision by a physician or psychiatrist. Parents and teens should be alert and observe any increases in suicidal thinking while taking medication.
- A suicide hotline is available for those needing someone to talk to immediately. Parents and teens should call 911 in the United States if there is an immediate threat of suicide.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Counselors, parents, trusted adults, friends and other supportive people are available to you if you are a teen struggling with suicidal thoughts. Help is also available if you are a parent or family member of a teen who has made a suicide attempt. In my work with teens and parents, seeking counseling after a suicide attempt has helped individuals move forward as they process the incident and examine their experiences.