Suicide is a difficult topic to discuss, but it is a serious public health issue that affects all too many families. As a parent, you can learn the facts and how to help your child if they are struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Facts about youth suicide

If you’re unfamiliar, some of the statistics about teenage suicide may surprise you.

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States among young people aged 12 to 18 (CDC WISQARS, 2020).  
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined (Jason Foundation, 2023).
  • In a typical day in the United States, there are an average of 3,703 suicide attempts made by middle school and high school students (CDC WISQARS 2020).
  • Far more children think about killing themselves than those who actually attempt suicide. This is called suicidal ideation. 
  • Four out of five individuals considering suicide give some sign of their intentions, either verbally or behaviorally (Jason Foundation, 2023).
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are four times more likely to consider suicide than their peers (The Trevor Project, 2021).

Risk factors and warning signs of suicide

It is difficult to predict who might become suicidal. However, there are risk factors and warning signs that you should pay attention to.

Risk factors are behaviors or conditions that might increase the likelihood of attempting suicide. Some risk factors that can be concerning include:

  • Previous suicide attempts.
  • A recent loss, such as a loved one, relationship, job, recent parental separation or divorce.  
  • Being bullied at school or elsewhere.
  • Depression and other mental disorders.
  • Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI)—which refers to a person cutting or injuring themselves without any intent or plan to die.

Warning signs are behaviors that could indicate that your child might be thinking about suicide. Common warning signs include: 

  • Symptoms of depression: These can include sudden changes in personality or eating and sleeping habits. Withdrawal from family and friends, lack of interest in activities, declining school performance, increased irritability, or a sense of hopelessness and despair can also be signs.
  • A preoccupation with death: this can include references in conversations, social media posts, school assignments, or artwork.
  • Talking about or making threats of suicide: People who talk about or threaten suicide are more likely to attempt it. Take any threat seriously, whether direct, indirect, through comments, text messages, or social media.
  • Planning: young people who have decided to kill themselves may take steps to make arrangements like saying goodbyes or giving away items they treasure.
  • Alcohol or drug use or misuse: Youth may use substances as a means of coping with painful feelings. It’s also important to remember that substance use can lower an individual’s inhibitions, increasing the risk of making a suicide attempt.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt.

Remember this is not an all-inclusive list of warning signs. Any time you notice behaviors that concern you, don’t hesitate to ask questions and seek professional help.

What can families do?

If your child displays any warning signs, or if you have a concern about their actions or behaviors, take it seriously. Some things parents can do to reduce the risk of suicide include:

  • Maintain a positive relationship with your child. Check in with your child frequently and let them know you are available for them if they are stressed or struggling.
  • Restrict access to lethal means of suicide in your home. Lock up medications (including over-the-counter medications), firearms, and other weapons.
  • Ask directly and non-judgmentally if your child is thinking about suicide. Talking about suicide will not increase the risk or “plant the idea” in your child’s mind. You can say something like “I notice you’ve been really sad lately. Have you had thoughts of suicide?”
  • If your child talks about suicide, begin by listening without judgment. Respond with empathy and concern. Be careful not to dismiss your child’s feelings by saying things like “You have so much to live for.” Get professional help.
  • If your child makes threats of suicide, do not leave them alone. Get professional help immediately.

For crisis intervention call Kids’ Link RI at 1-855-KID LINK (1-855-543-5465).

Donald Laliberte, LICSW

Donald Laliberte, LICSW, is the Director of Access and Assistant Director of Lifespan Pediatric Behavioral Health Emergency Services.