Thoughts about suicide
Occasional thoughts or fantasies about death and suicide are not totally uncommon for teens – emotional ups and downs are definitely part of being a teen and dramatic behavior can be a result of the pressures and changes you experience during adolescence. When it comes to thoughts about suicide, it’s really important to recognize the difference between the strong emotions that can come with being a teen and the overwhelming emotions that are experienced when a person is at risk for suicide. It might be surprising for you to learn that suicide is the second most common cause of death for people 15 – 24 years old (young people are at quite low risk of death from physical illness and death is very rare during this age period). But, clearly, suicidal thoughts are a warning sign of a serious problem and a red-flag signal to get immediate help and support.
Struggling with suicidal thoughts
Every once in a while, you or a friend might say, “uh, I wouldn’t have these problems if I were dead,” or “I should just kill myself if I can’t get an A on this test.” Most of the time you probably shrug these exclamations off as drama or just words. Why? Maybe because you have a sense that underneath it all, your struggles are manageable, you have hope, and that you’re feeling connected to people who give you support and love – you are not really serious about wanting to die.
Sadly though, some people have thoughts about suicide because their emotional pain is unbearable and it seems like the only option for solving their problems is to kill themselves. They feel disconnected from people who would give them love and support and they feel hopeless, helpless, lonely, lost, angry and empty or very sad. A person who is at risk for suicide might look and behave differently than they used to and talk about specific ways they are thinking about killing themselves.
Always take the threat of suicide seriously – it is always appropriate and important to get help for yourself or a friend whenever there are suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Remember that it’s OK to ask about suicidal thoughts directly – don’t beat around the bush – you won’t cause someone to be suicidal just by asking.
If you or a friend need help or information right away, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “START” to 741-741.
What might you notice when someone is suicidal?
When someone is suicidal, you may not always notice big changes in their behavior or mood. Sometimes it's a combination of a lot of little things that you might pick up that tells you something is not right. It is important to remember that if you are worried, it's best to speak up and get help. You might notice a change in a person's mood, their behavior, their energy level – even a very subtle change can be a red flag that something is wrong. You might hear a suicidal person talk in negative ways about themselves or post angry things about their life; often they don't want to be around their friends or do the things they used to enjoy doing with you – they are withdrawn, empty or seem distracted by something. A suicidal friend might not be able to accept your praise or encouragement. People who are suicidal might talk about killing themselves or talk about getting a gun, or pills or some other means to hurt themselves. In addition, you might notice a change in their use of alcohol or drugs. Again, if ever in doubt about what to do if you notice worrisome changes, get help immediately– ask your friend about how they are doing and whether they have thoughts or impulses to harm themselves – get a trusted adult involved.
What increases the risk of suicide?
A number of things in a person’s life could put them at risk for suicide – these include any history of serious or chronic medical or mental illness, a history of previous suicide attempts or trying to hurt themselves before. If a person abuses substances, they’re at higher risk for suicide because a third of people who die from suicide are under the influence of alcohol or other substances at the time. Traumatic events (for example, war or a very serious injury) and sexual or physical abuse can put a person at risk for suicide. Any time there is a tragedy (such as an unexpected death) or loss of a loved one, or when there is constant stress from events around you (such as poverty) there is increased risk for suicide. Isolation is a risk factor for suicide - this can include social isolation from prejudice or discrimination, especially in LGBTQ teens, Native Americans and Alaska natives.
What helps protect you against the risk of suicide?
Protective factors are circumstances or situations in a person’s life that help protect them from suicide. One important protective factor is to keep potentially lethal means for suicide, such as guns, knives and prescription pills, out of the hands of a person who is struggling with suicidal thoughts or urges. In addition to finding good sources of mental health care it helps a lot to have coping skills and resilience. For most people, being surrounded by a supportive family or community and having a sense of purpose in life can help protect against risk of suicide.
If you are having thoughts about killing yourself, know that you don't have to deal with this alone. There are resources out there to help you - if you feel like the people you know can't handle your problems, or if you feel like you are beyond being helped, or you don't want to tell your problems to people you know, there are many ways to get help and support from people who are available to you 24/7. They are there to listen and help you during your worst hours – they will not judge you or force you to do something that will make things worse. Read more about suicidal behavior and treatment for suicidal thoughts and behaviors here.