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Suicide prevention for teens

Suicide is not easy to talk about, and often even less so when we face it in our families and friends. The statistics point to an epidemic that affects children and adolescents with particular severity, with 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listing suicide as the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10-24.

This is an upwards trend. Youth suicides, specifically undertaken by minors between the ages of 10 and 17 have increased by a shattering 70% in the past decade. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened what is one of the country’s most existential health problems.

As a part of September’s National Suicide Awareness Prevention Month, we would like to raise our voices at Clearfork Academy and offer this resource for teens who are living with suicidal thoughts, as well as the family members and friends who struggle with this second-hand to offer mental health resources and support. Keep in mind that none of you are alone, and even the most final of acts are preventable.

Understanding Suicidal Ideation

Understanding Suicidal Ideation

When we describe someone as suicidal, it doesn’t mean that they have yet or will attempt to take their own life. Suicidal behavior is generally preceded at length by different forms of suicidal thinking – ruminations about death or the desire to die that can manifest in various ways and worsen before any action is taken.

For every person who attempts suicide, many more are thinking about it. In 2020, 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide, while over 12 million were estimated to have thought seriously about it.

Suicidal ideation can be categorized in two ways:

  • Passive suicidal ideation: thinking about suicide in broader undefined terms, i.e: ruminating on the desire to no longer live, about being dead, imagining other’s lives without them.
  • Active suicidal ideation: thinking about suicide explicitly, specifically about different ways to die, options, and making plans.

Suicidal thoughts can develop into a pattern of escape from the outside world, but even this type of passive ideation can rapidly progress to active planning under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, it is still too easily dismissed. The stigma that surrounds suicide in teens has many people shutting down efforts to talk about passive ideation, both in themselves and in others out of fear or belief that speaking about this terrifying thought pattern is “attention seeking” or lying.

Risk Factors

Suicide doesn’t have any one cause, but several factors can significantly contribute to the risk of adolescents developing suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Effective suicide prevention often means growing awareness of the issues that can exacerbate or worsen suicidal thoughts, many of which can be intervened with directly to reduce the risk of harm.

The following are all significant suicide risk factors, outlined by the suicide prevention resource center:

  • History of foster care
  • Childhood experience of trauma, abuse, or violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety
  • Barriers to health care
  • Family history of suicide
  • Chronic or terminal physical health problems, disability
  • Feeling hopeless, alienated, or without support
  • Bullying and social isolation

Concern about suicide is often centered on adolescents that are otherwise living with mental illness. However, any kind of acute adverse event can greatly increase the likelihood that a young person is contemplating ending their life. The suicide prevention resource center describes these as “precipitating factors” – and while these are extremely subjective to each of us as individuals, they often include:

  • Conflict in relationships inside or outside the family
  • Romantic breakup
  • Death or divorce in the immediate family
  • Arrest
  • Financial problems
  • Academic failure, rejection

For many teens, emotional responses are heightened – high school students and young adults can be deeply affected by adverse events in ways that older adults may not immediately spot. At the same time, these are not a checklist or criteria. If someone doesn’t ‘seem’ to be at risk for suicide, but is still exhibiting warning signs, there is cause for action.

Suicide Warning Signs

Suicide Warning Signs

Suicide is a deeply stigmatized, terrifying topic for young people who are experiencing thoughts of it, and their friends and loved ones alike. If someone close to you is struggling with suicidal thoughts, dysphoria, or other mental health problems, they may not feel comfortable sharing this with the people around them.

If passive ideation has progressed to active planning, some urgent signs indicate that this person has developed a driving desire to take their life. A person can be suicidal without exhibiting the following warning signs, but if any of these arise it may be time for an immediate intervention:

  • Expressing the desire to die in person or online
  • Self-harm
  • Acquiring sharp objects, weapons, drugs, chemicals, or other objects that could be used to take one’s life
  • Visiting or reaching out to people to say goodbye
  • Withdrawing from loved ones and friends
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Unexplained mood changes, such as brightening up after a long period of depression
  • Searching online for advice related to suicide, such as methods.

While the following do not necessarily indicate that someone in your life is contemplating suicide, they are significant red flags that something is dearly amiss.

  • expressing feelings of hopelessness, or feeling trapped
  • by substance abuse and underage drinking
  • Rapid weight changes
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, insomnia, or lethargy
  • Loss of interest in maintaining physical appearance or hygiene
  • Risk-taking or self-destructive acts

Teen Suicide Prevention

If you or someone close to you are aware that a crisis is occurring, some actions can be taken to relieve the danger of a harmful act immediately. Organizations like the 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line are available 24-7 to listen and de-escalate acute and risky situations (anyone can text HOME to 741741 at any time to reach a compassionate expert). However, preventing the worst unsurprisingly involves engaging social support systems, performing self-care, and avoiding burnout long before active suicidal thoughts come into play.

Protective Factors

While many risk factors contribute to the likelihood of a teen developing suicidal thoughts, researchers have also identified a variety of protective factors that are related to people’s resilience against suicide.

The major protective factors against suicide do not necessarily cure suicidal thoughts or behavior, but they can be understood as guiding trends that help discourage suicide by improving emotional and mental well-being. These are:

  • Access to behavioral health care
  • Connection, to family, friends, social institutions, and the broader community
  • Practical life skills, including intangibles like cognitive problem-solving skills, coping skills, and flexibility
  • Higher self-esteem
  • An individual sense of purpose or meaning
  • Engagement with spiritual and cultural beliefs

Parents, family members, and friends can help prevent suicide by building up these preventative factors in their loved ones. Normalizing therapy, speaking openly about mental and behavioral health, and building connections that are honest, open, and supportive of the capabilities, interests, and values of your loved one can make a world of difference.

Taking Action: Family and Friends

If you are concerned that your friend or loved one may be suicidal, it’s okay to break the ice. Many people are afraid to broach the topic of teen suicide because of the stigma that has surrounded this loaded topic – but that emotional baggage leaves many people who are having suicidal thoughts to close off and self-isolate. Don’t wait for them, approach them with compassion and let them know you are a safe person to talk to.

Teen suicide prevention often involves talking about therapy, so do some research into the mental health services available in your region.

Responding to a Crisis

If a loved one is experiencing a suicidal crisis and has made immediate plans to take their life, here’s what you can do:

  1. Remain calm as best you can, intense emotional responses may make things worse for your friend or loved one
  2. Stay with the suicidal individual – do not leave them alone
  3. Remove anything that could be used for self-harm from the area, including firearms, drugs, alcohol, razors, and other sharp objects.
  4. If you are not ‘the trusted adult’ yourself – reach out to someone older that you know you can count on. This may be the individual’s parents, older family members, or a school counselor – use your judgment to find someone who can help you and your friend access immediate support and/or a mental health professional.Finding Help

Finding Help

Teens and young adults are more at risk of suicide than they ever have been before. If you, your friend, your child, or a loved one has realized that they’re having thoughts of suicide or has opened up about a suicide attempt, then it’s time to act. However, reacting urgently to mental health crises in teenagers can be complex.

There are options for accessing appropriate mental health services that address the unique needs of young people without disrupting their futures. Clearfork Academy offers intensive outpatient and inpatient options for young people whose lives are endangered by suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and other co-occurring mental health problems.

Our expert, empathetic staff are here for you if you need help for yourself or your family. We offer individual therapy, group therapy, and even family therapy, and our programs are designed by adolescent psychiatrists. Get in contact with Clearfork Academy today to find out how we can help.