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Teen suicide: What parents need to know

Know the risk factors for teen suicide, the warning signs and the steps you can take to protect your teen.

Updated: 2023-05-05

Is your teen at risk of suicide? Some things, such as medical, family and social problems, can make some teenagers more likely to take their own lives. Learn how to tell if your teen might be at risk for considering suicide. And find out where to turn for help and treatment.

What makes teens prone to suicide?

Many teens who attempt or die by suicide have a mental health illness. As a result, they have trouble coping with the stress of being a teen. They might have a very hard time dealing with rejection, failure, breakups, school troubles or family problems.

And they might not be able to see that they can turn their lives around. They also might not fully understand that suicide is a permanent response, not a solution, to a short-term problem.

What are the risk factors for teen suicide?

It is important to say that teens often cope with stressful medical, physical and life events without attempting self-harm or suicide.

But it's a good idea to be aware of certain risk factors. Medical or physical issues that can raise the risk of suicide include:

  • A mental health illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or oppositional defiant disorder.
  • Changes related to puberty or a long-term illness.
  • A substance use disorder.

Life circumstances that can raise the risk include:

  • Family history of mood disorders, suicide or actions that could lead to suicide.
  • Being exposed to the suicide of a family member or friend.
  • History of physical or sexual abuse, or being exposed to violence or bullying.
  • Access to means of suicide, such as guns or medicines.
  • Losing close friends or family members, or having conflicts with them.
  • Being gender diverse with risk factors such as bullying and family or social conflicts.
  • Being adopted.

Children who have attempted suicide in the past also are at greater risk.

What are the warning signs that a teen might be suicidal?

Warning signs that a teen might be thinking about suicide include:

  • Talking or writing about suicide. For example, making statements such as "I'm going to kill myself," or "I won't be a problem for you much longer."
  • Using more and more alcohol or drugs.
  • Feeling trapped, hopeless or helpless about a situation.
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things.
  • Giving away personal items for no clear, logical reason.

Some other warning signs might seem like typical teenage behavior:

  • Changing normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns.
  • Becoming less social and wanting to be alone.
  • Having mood swings.

Suicidal teens also might have personality changes or become very anxious or agitated when they experience some of the warning signs listed above.

What should I do if I suspect my teen is suicidal?

If you think your teen is in danger right now, call 911, your local emergency number or a suicide hotline. In the United States, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. It's available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or use the Lifeline Chat. Services are free and confidential. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the U.S. has a Spanish language phone line at 888-628-9454 (toll-free).

If you suspect that your teen might be thinking about suicide, talk to your teen right away. Don't be afraid to use the word "suicide." Talking about suicide won't plant ideas for self-harm in a child's head.

Ask how your teenager is feeling and listen. Don't dismiss your teen's problems. Instead, reassure your child of your love. Remind your teen that together, you can work through whatever is going on.

Also, seek medical help for your teen. Ask your teen's health care provider to guide you.

Your teen's health care provider will want to get a sense of what's going on from sources such as:

  • The teen.
  • Parents or guardians.
  • Other people close to the teen.
  • School reports.
  • Past medical or mental health exams.

Teens who are feeling suicidal often need the help of a specialist. This can be a psychiatrist, psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.

You may find a health care professional who treats mental health in children. Or you might find one who will want to talk with the teen and parents, or the whole family.

In some cases, it may be hard for caregivers to keep a suicidal teen safe at home. The teen's provider or mental health professional may recommend treatment in a hospital or intensive outpatient program. Or they might suggest calling local crisis response services for help.

What can I do to prevent teen suicide?

You can take steps to help protect your teen. For example:

  • Talk about mental health and suicide. Don't wait for your teen to come to you. Ask what's wrong if your teen is sad, anxious, depressed or seems to be struggling. Listen and offer your support.
  • Pay attention. Teens who think about suicide often show warning signs. Listen to what your child says and watch how your child acts. Never disregard threats of suicide as teenage drama.
  • Discourage too much alone time. Encourage your teen to spend time with supportive friends and family.
  • Monitor and talk about social media use. Keep an eye on your teen's social media accounts. Social media can give teens valuable support, but it can expose them to hurtful things too. That includes bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people's lives and peer pressure. If your teen is hurt or upset by social media posts or messages, encourage your teen to talk to you or to another trusted adult or teacher. Feeling connected and supported at school can have a strong protective effect.
  • Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Help your teen eat well, exercise and get regular sleep.
  • Support the treatment plan. If your teen is getting treatment for suicidal behavior, it might take time to feel better. Help your teen follow the treatment plan. Also, encourage your teen to take part in activities that can help boost confidence and healthy connections with others.
  • Monitor medicines. Some teens might have more suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking medicines called antidepressants. This isn't common. But the risk is higher in the first few weeks after starting a medicine or when a dose is changed. Still, antidepressants are more likely to lower suicide risk in the long run, because they can improve mood. If your teen has suicidal thoughts while taking an antidepressant, call the doctor right away or get emergency help.
  • Safely store guns, alcohol and medicines. Access to means of suicide can play a role if a teen is already suicidal.

If you're worried about your teen, have an honest talk with your child and get help right away.