Not a phase: How to recognize suicidal tendencies in teens

September 12, 2017 Providence Health Team

Transitioning from childhood to adolescence isn’t always easy. The mounting pressure from high school and friends can often take a toll on teenagers and have an effect on their attitude at home and around family. But there is a blurred line between a sullen and rebellious teen and one on the brink of suicide. Sometimes, distinguishing between a phase and a serious threat can be difficult. Teens are often moody, but it’s important to recognize symptoms of depression and possible suicide and offer support before they turn into something more.

Common Warning Signs

The majority of teens take their own life because of mental problems such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, issues related to friends, bullying or personal struggles with sexual identity. Other reasons include low self-esteem and feelings of loneliness or helplessness. Because teenagers rely on adults for support, it’s crucial that you offer understanding during troubling times. For most, teenage angst is passing. Unfortunately for some, this isn’t always the case. Look for these common suicidal warning signs in your teen:

  • Dramatic personality change
  • Giving away belongings
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Aggressive or hostile behavior
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Talk of suicide (even in a joking way)
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Apathy toward school
  • Sleep disturbances

Suicide among teens is surprisingly common. In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. While no two teenagers are alike, they may experience similar situations and take their lives for the same reasons. Helping your teen through issues at school or with friends may help prevent suicidal thoughts, however, a teen suffering from mood disorders or depression might be more challenging to help. The good news is, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder can be treated.

How to help

If you notice changes in your teen, a health care provider will be able to determine if he or she is at risk for suicide and can recommend treatment. Knowing exactly when the symptoms started will help your doctor determine why they started and how to proceed with tests and diagnosis. Depending on the outcome of your teen’s assessments, treatment options might include: seeking a mental health professional’s counsel, participation in a substance abuse program and medications.

If you suspect your teen might be at risk for suicide, it’s best to make an appointment with a health care provider. In the meantime, if your teen is experiencing a change in behavior or expressing suicidal thoughts, there are several things you can do at home to minimize a possible threat:

  • Stay calm and listen carefully
  • Speak in a reassuring, positive tone
  • Acknowledge what s/he is feeling
  • Offer encouragement
  • Don’t judge, threaten or yell
  • Tell your child that you want to help him/her feel better
  • Remove any knives, medications or things that may cause harm

There are several resources available if you need extra help distinguishing between a phase and a suicide threat.

Lastly, make an appointment with your local medical health professional to find out how to proceed with any necessary screenings or tests for your loved one.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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