10 Things Parents Can Do to Prevent Teen Suicide

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Any parent of a teenager knows how challenging it can be to know what their teen is thinking and feeling. All teens go through a range of emotional ups and downs as a normal part of growing up and dealing with the pressures of school, friends, physical changes, sexual feelings and others’ expectations. However, many of our parents come to us wanting to know when their child’s mood swings become something to worry about.

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

Here at Westchester Health Pediatrics, we know how important it is to know what factors can put a teen at risk for suicide and also to be able to recognize the warning signs of a teen contemplating suicide. That’s why we’ve put together these guidelines in hopes of helping to prevent a tragedy from occurring.

10 ways parents can help prevent teen suicide

  1. Don’t let your teen’s depression or anxiety snowball.

Studies show that 9 in 10 teens who take their own lives were previously diagnosed with a psychiatric or mental health condition or disorder—more than half had a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety.

Depressed teens often retreat into themselves, when secretly they’re crying out to be rescued. Often they’re too embarrassed to reveal their deep unhappiness, especially to their parents. Boys in particular hide their emotions, believing that revealing their feeling is a sign of weakness.

Don’t wait for your child to come to you with their problems or concerns. Knock on their door, sit on their bed and try saying, “You seem sad. Can we talk about it? I want to understand what you’re going through and maybe I can help.”

  1. Listen—even when your teen is not talking.

Studies have found that one trait common to families that have experienced a son’s or daughter’s suicide is poor communication between parents and child. However, there are usually three or more issues going on in a child’s life when he/she is thinking suicide.

These include but are not limited to:

  • Major loss (i.e., girlfriend/boyfriend breakup or death of a loved one or pet)
  • Substance use
  • Peer or social pressure
  • Access to weapons
  • Public humiliation
  • Severe chronic pain
  • Chronic medical condition
  • Impulsiveness/aggressiveness
  • Family history of suicide

Talk to your teen as much as he/she will allow you to. Also, we often recommend that parents seek help from a mental health professional.

  1. Never shrug off threats of suicide as typical teenage melodrama.

Any written or verbal statement of “I want to die” or “I don’t care anymore” should be treated seriously. Often, children who attempt suicide tell their parents repeatedly that they intend to kill themselves.

If you notice any of these red flags, seek professional help for your child right away:

  • “Nothing matters.”
  • “I wonder how many people would come to my funeral?”
  • “Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up.”
  • “Everyone would be better off without me.”
  • “You won’t have to worry about me much longer.”
  • “I just want the pain to stop.”

Most importantly, do not respond by saying, “Oh c’mon, you don’t mean that.” What your child is really saying, is: “I need your love and attention because I’m in tremendous pain, and I can’t seem to stop it on my own.” Be willing to listen nonjudgmentally. Your focus needs to be on consoling, such as, “I hear you. You must really, really be hurting inside. Together, let’s see what we can do to help you feel better.”

  1. Seek professional help right away.

If you are concerned (or even alarmed) at your teenager’s behavior, don’t wait to contact your pediatrician. Go straight to a mental health provider who works with children to have your child evaluated as soon as possible so he/she can start therapy, counseling or treatment as soon as possible. If you believe your child is actually suicidal and in danger of self-harm, call your local mental health crisis line or take your child to the emergency room.

  1. Share your feelings.

Let your teen know he or she is not alone and that everyone feels sad or depressed or anxious now and then, including moms and dads. Without minimizing what he/she is going through, be reassuring that these bad times won’t last forever and that you are committed to getting him/her help.

  1. Try to prevent your teen from isolate himself/herself from family and friends.

It’s usually better to be around other people than to be alone.

  1. Recommend exercise.

Physical activity, as simple as walking or as vigorous as lifting weights, can help mediate mild to moderate depression. There are several theories why:

  • Working out causes the brain to release endorphins which improve mood and ease pain. Endorphins also lower the amount of cortisol, a hormone linked to depression.
  • Exercise distracts people from their problems and makes them feel better about themselves.
  • Any form of exercise will do. What matters most is that your child enjoys the activity and continues to do it on a regular basis.
  1. Urge your teen not to demand too much of himself/herself.

Whenever possible, suggest that he/she divide large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones and participate in favorite, low-stress activities. The goal is to rebuild confidence and self-esteem.

  1. If your teen is undergoing treatment, advise him/her not to expect immediate results.

Therapy and/or medication usually take time to improve mood. Your child shouldn’t become discouraged if he or she doesn’t feel better right away.

  1. If you keep guns at home, store them safely or move them to another location until your child’s crisis has passed.

Fact: Most teenage suicide deaths by firearm involves a gun belonging to a family member. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if a gun wasn’t available. If you suspect your child might be suicidal, it is extremely important to keep all firearms, alcohol and medications secured locked away.

Warning signs of depression or suicide

The following may be signs of a mental health problem, such as a mood disorder, or may relate directly to suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Changes in activities:

  • A drop in grades or school performance
  • Neglect of personal appearance
  • Neglect of responsibilities

Changes in emotions:

  • Appearing or talking about feeling sad, hopeless, bored or overwhelmed
  • Having outbursts, severe anger or irritability
  • Appearing or talking about feeling anxious or worried

Changes in behavior:

  • Getting in trouble, being rebellious, aggressive or impulsive
  • Running away or threatening to run away
  • Withdrawing from friends or family or changing friends
  • Eating or sleeping less or more
  • Losing interest in activities
  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Hurting themselves, such as cutting or severe dieting
  • Talking or writing of suicide or death
  • Any suicidal behavior, even if it could not have been lethal, such as taking a small amount of pills

Remember

Family support and professional treatment can help teens who are at risk of suicide deal with their difficulties. Current treatments for mood disorders and other mental health problems, such as individual and family counseling, medications and other therapies, along with long-term follow-up, can be very helpful.

Additional resources:

Worried that your child might be suicidal? Come see us, we can help.

If your child is exhibiting any of the above warning signs, or if you just have a feeling that something’s not right, please come see us at Westchester Health Pediatrics right away. One of our pediatricians will examine your child and may refer him/her to a mental health specialist for professional treatment. Working together, we’ll make sure your child gets the help he/she needs. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

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By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics

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About the Author: ML Ball