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While suicidal tendencies, thoughts and actual suicides have unfortunately become more common across the board, they have grown especially rapidly among teens. There is no single factor to blame here, as a myriad of issues contribute: rising rates of depression and anxiety, dire economic difficulties (especially in rural areas), rising rates of violence against LGBTQ teens, COVID, and the opioid crisis are some examples.

But rather than view rising suicides simply within the lens of public health, it’s important to recognize that the most effective way for parents and families to tackle the problem is at home. Family support, greater access to mental health resources, and a more compassionate and understanding stance on the issues surrounding suicide can sometimes make a crucial difference.

Recognizing early on when a teen is contemplating suicide is an important step towards helping them. Understanding suicidal tendencies and why some people feel the urge to commit suicide can help us find better ways to address these thoughts in our loved ones without alienating them.

What Are Suicidal Tendencies?

For every completed suicide, there are about 25 suicide attempts where a person survives. Yet surviving once doesn’t somehow diminish the chance of it happening again – instead, someone who attempted suicide is more likely to try again in the future. Suicidal tendencies refer to suicidal ideation (thoughts) and suicidal behavior (actions), and they can be understood to describe a teen’s likelihood of considering suicide as an option for their pain.

While one should be careful not to normalize suicide, it is important to understand the scope of how it affects those around us – as many as 17 percent of grade 9-12 students seriously contemplated suicide in 2013, while only 2.7 percent made a suicide attempt that required medical attention. Chances are that someone close to you might have, at some low point in their lives, considered the idea. It’s important to empathize with someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, even without first-hand experience.

Many who do contemplate suicide are ashamed to bring it up, and often feel they are a burden to others, or don’t want to be labeled unstable or “crazy”. While most people might not personally identify with the urge to commit suicide, there is a natural logic to it for those who do – a point when the despair and pain reaches a level where non-existence is the only alternative. When a loved one opens up about having suicidal thoughts, try to understand what they must be feeling that would drive them to such a point – and how you can best respond to help them feel heard and seen.

That point, thankfully, is often fleeting. A teen with suicidal tendencies may have or continues to consider suicide, but they aren’t looking for ways to commit suicide at all times. Instead, there are short moments when they are gripped with overwhelming pressure and sadness – and it’s in those moments that they need access to consistent help and support to keep themselves from the point of no return. Protective factors and therapy can help make those moments rarer, to the point that they provide the framework for treating someone with suicidal ideation and other symptoms of depression.

Critical Risk Factors and Warning Signs

Recognizing suicidal thoughts in a teen is sometimes as simple as listening to them when they talk on subjects of death and self-harm, or as complex as watching for subtle changes in their behaviors and actions that might hint at overwhelming stress and sadness. Some important signs include:

    • Frequently discussing suicide and death
    • Talking about being useless or a burden
    • Low self-esteem and withdrawal from others
    • Disinterest in old hobbies and friends
    • Sudden shift in mood and activities
    • Increased or recent substance use
    • Signs of aggression or high irritability
    • Uncharacteristic risk-taking behavior
    • Saying goodbyes and leaving cryptic messages
    • Buying a firearm

Some of the risk factors contributing to suicidal thoughts include:

    • Increased substance use, including alcohol
    • A family history of suicides
    • Depression and depressive disorders
    • Gun ownership/easy access to firearms
    • Chronic pain, or another serious chronic illness
    • Gender (men are four times more likely to complete suicide, while women attempt suicide more often than men)
    • Trauma or abuse
    • Continued stress
    • Recent loss of a loved one

Teens can talk about suicide and be sad without being suicidal or depressed, and they’re known for shifts in mood and temper – but when your gut feeling is that some of the more recent changes in your teen are certainly taking a turn for the dark, it’s not a bad idea to bring it up. Bringing up the topic of suicide does not make someone more likely to commit suicide and may actually give them the opportunity to open up and talk to you about feelings they felt should stay hidden, potentially festering unaddressed.

By approaching the topic first, you take away the anxiety that they may have that somehow talking about suicide or suicidal ideation would lead to an unhelpful conversation about just cheering up, or being scolded for thoughts/actions of self-harm. If you’re worried, concerned, or suspicious, just talk to your teen. Talk to their friends, as well. Make sure they understand that you’re concerned and want to be there for them – and that they shouldn’t be afraid to approach you on the topic of mental health and emotion.

Is It Always Depression?

While teens with depressive disorders are more likely than the general population to commit suicide, less than half of all suicides involve people who were diagnosed with a depressive disorder, or any mental illness. While they may have gone undiagnosed, it’s also possible to struggle with thoughts of suicide and experience suicidal tendencies without a co-occurring mental health condition. Sometimes, the circumstances we find ourselves in are so overwhelming that suicide becomes a reasonable option to the mind, if only for a moment.

Suicides remain most common among middle-aged men, with rates rising more quickly in rural areas than anywhere else in the country. While lack of mental health services may be a contributing factor, economic despair and years of stress can compound and lead to suicidal thoughts as well. Opportunity is another important factor – if it’s easier to commit suicide, it’s also more likely to happen. While mental health and access to treatment are important factors in preventing suicides, they aren’t always a primary factor.

Importance of Seeking Help and Offering Support

If you think your loved one is going through a hard time or has recently been contemplating suicide, the most important thing is to make sure they know you’re there for them. You don’t have to be a qualified therapist or a mental health specialist to help support a loved one, and oftentimes just being there to listen with compassion can save lives.

Professional help is still important, especially in cases where suicidal ideation is matched with other symptoms of potential depression, or another mental health issue. But don’t underestimate your value and role as a loved one’s friend, parent, or relative. Both help and support are necessary.