Suicide Prevention Awareness Month
Written by Mel Gutierrez, BSN, RN
September is suicide prevention awareness month. While we all hope this is not a tragedy that impacts our children, 10 to 14-year-olds make up 2.8% of people who die by suicide, and 15 to 24-year-olds make up 14.2%1. For 10 to14-year-olds it is the second leading cause of death and for 15 to 24-year-olds it is the 3rd leading cause of death2.
Knowing what puts children at risk, the warning signs of danger, and what to do if you’re worried can prevent children from taking their own lives. The El Paso Center for Children is here to help you learn the warning signs of suicide and to provide you with help if you are worried about a young person in your life.
Who is at risk?
The teenage years are some of the hardest years of life. The physical and hormonal changes paired with changing friendships and family relationships put a strain on even the most resilient teenagers. But when these normal stressors are paired with especially stressful events such as
- Family violence
- Abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional)
- Major life changes such as the loss of a parent or moving to a new school
- Bullying or cyberbullying
- Exposure to suicide from a family member, friend, or in the media.
- A history of impulsive behavior, substance abuse, or mental illness
- Being a victim of or witness to a crime
The risk for suicidal behavior and thoughts goes up significantly for teens
Boys are four times more likely to die or complete a suicide attempt compared to girls, but girls are more likely to attempt3. Girls tend to use less violent methods to attempt suicide, such as overdosing on medication. Boys are more likely to use violent methods such as firearms.
In order for a suicide to occur, a suicidal person needs to have a plan to end their life and then obtain what they are planning to use, such as a firearm or medication.
- More than half of youth suicides are completed with firearms. If you have firearms in the home it is important that you have a safety system in place
- Overdosing on medication is also a frequent completion method. Always dispose of old medications and use drug take-back resources.
Early Warning Signs and Emergency Warnings
Before a suicide attempt, teens act differently. Warning signs vary, and not all youth will show the same signs. Some warnings include the following:
Suicidal teens tend to sleep and eat too much, or far too little. If a teenager is unable to sleep or eat for three days it is important to reach out to their doctor right away.
They might also complain of new stomach aches, headaches, and being extremely tired. Or they might ignore their hygiene and personal appearance
While it is normal for teens to become less engaged with their families, a sudden change is a cause for concern; especially if they don’t spend time with friends.
They may also stop engaging in activities they used to love, like sports or clubs; or have a sudden decrease in their school performance. They also may talk about feeling really bored, having problems focusing, and not being responsive to praise.
Teenagers all engage in boundary-pushing, but extreme behaviors can be a warning sign for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
If a teen is engaging in very risky behavior like ditching school regularly, experimenting with drugs or alcohol or increasing their usage, self-harm, illegal activities, or running away it is important to act.
When a person has a plan for suicide and is seeking a way to complete the act it is important to call 911 or seek emergency medical treatment. Warning signs that a teen might have a plan and a means to follow through include:
- Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of depression is a warning that they might have developed a suicide plan and is happier due to the relief they feel that it will be over soon.
- Giving hints such as “I want to kill myself”, “I won’t be a problem much longer” or “If anything happens to me I want you to know.” Should be treated seriously, even if they try to shake it off as being a joke.
- Giving away or throwing away important belongings is a sign that a teenager may not be planning to be around for much longer.
- Writing one or more suicide notes is a sign that suicidal thoughts have moved into a planning phase and that a teen needs help.
What to do if you’re worried about a Teen
While a teen might act like they do not want to spend time with the adults in their lives, having an open, non-judgmental line of communication can be life-saving. Though it is tempting to try to solve their problems or feel frustrated and criticize teens for poor decisions, this can shut down all communication. Teens who trust the adults in their lives are more likely to reach out if they are having suicidal thoughts.
A dangerous myth about suicide is that talking about suicide will put the idea in their heads. But, talking directly about suicide is one of the best ways to help a teenager in distress. If you are worried a teen might be suicidal, explicitly ask the following questions:
- Are you feeling suicidal?
- Do you have a suicide plan, and do you have access to what you would use?
If they say yes to only the first question, but deny having a plan reach out to the teen’s healthcare provider immediately. Re-assure them they are not a burden as you are helping them get the help they need. In addition to speaking with a provider, it is important to seek out resources such as El Paso Center For Children’s Counseling and Life Skills program or other therapeutic services to start treatment as soon as possible.
If they say yes to the second question, even if they do not have access to what they would use it is important to act. You can call 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to help manage the crisis and can be text messaged in English as well if the teen would prefer no to talk. If you believe there is an imminent threat to the child’s life, dial 911 or drive to an emergency room to make sure that they are kept safe. Thank the teen for trusting you, and let them know you will support them as you help them feel better.
Suicide is a tragedy that unfortunately touches people of all ages. Knowing what factors put a teen more at risk, warning signs of potential trouble and what to do if you are worried can prevent heartbreak.
But just as there are risks that increase the chances that a child might end their own life, there are things we can do to help prevent it from happening.
We can help our teens be more resilient by helping them learn how to manage their problems and cope effectively. We can make sure that our teens feel supported by their families and feel that they are a part of a larger community. Finally, we can help reduce access to lethal means of suicide by keeping firearms locked and safely disposing of medications.
If you don’t know where to start if you are worried about a child or have more questions, reach out to us. We are passionate about helping all children in El Paso live the best lives possible.
The information written comes from my education as a registered nurse as well as my baccalaureate psychology education. It is only intended for educational purposes. The information written for this blog is not a substitution for professional medical advice or therapy services.