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Preventing Youth Suicide

Thursday is World Suicide Prevention Day, held each year on September 10 to promote awareness of suicide and prevention methods.

How many are affected?

In 2018, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States. Among children and adolescents in particular, suicide is the second highest cause of death. Suicide rates among this age group have been increasing over the years; in 2019, the rate of adolescents dying by suicide reached its highest peak of the past two decades.

Overall, “Boys take their lives at 3-4 times the rate of girls,” the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says.

Signs of depression in younger children may not be recognized or are dismissed by parents or teachers, which puts them at a higher risk for death by suicide. While adolescents and children may have a tendency to exaggerate in some situations, indications of depression and explicit threats of self-harm or suicide should not be taken lightly. 

Signs of Depression

Depression is the leading cause of suicide in adolescents and children. Recognizing its indicators can help one to intervene before it’s too late. Some key signs of depression include:

  • Prolonged sadness or crying episodes
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Changes in appetite (either increased or decreased)
  • Withdrawal from social activity
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Physical complaints (eg, stomachaches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
  • Irritability and hostility
  • Change in sleep (either sleeplessness or too much sleep)
  • Poor performance in school or truancy
  • Exaggerated reactions to normal events
  • Chronic physical complaints
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Comments about leaving home or school
  • Any comment, no matter how seemingly minor, about committing suicide

These symptoms don’t necessarily mean that a child is suffering from depression, but a psychological evaluation could be beneficial. Keep in mind that it is normal for young children to ask questions about death, especially after experiencing their first loss. If the preoccupation continues for a long period of time, however, it would be important to have the child see a therapist

Risk Factors for Suicide 

Teenagers and children with no history of depression can still be at risk for suicide. While thoughts about suicide and suicide attempts are often associated with depression, as explained above, there are other factors to be aware of:

  • A family history of suicide or suicide attempts
  • Exposure to violence
  • Aggressive or disruptive behavior
  • Access to firearms
  • Bullying
  • Impulsivity

The primary indicators of suicidal thoughts are comments about not being around much longer and giving away prized possessions. Often, a child will even seem suddenly happier after a long bout of depression from relief at their decision to commit suicide. Any of these behaviors should be taken very seriously. 

Ways to Help

Anyone who has contact with children could be involved in stopping a suicide attempt. Sometimes a child will come to a parent or teacher to report signs or confessions from other children about plans to commit suicide—or confess their own plans—and ask the adult not to tell. If this occurs, the child’s confidentiality must come second to reporting the threat of suicide. While the confidentiality of the reporter is important, there are occasions when a child’s life must come first. Abuse and homicidal or suicidal threats are examples of these occasions.

If a child makes a suicide attempt, it is crucial that the adults in their life don’t ignore the subject or interrogate the child about their attempt. Even though it may be uncomfortable for parents to discuss mental health with their children, these conversations are necessary to help prevent future attempts. Keep communication open, and address the issue with other adults in the child’s life. Children who attempt suicide once are at risk to do it again, so taking signs seriously is especially vital in their cases.

Additional Resources

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7. If you or someone you know needs help, please call 800-273-8255 or visit their website to chat online.

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