For a teenager to be so unbearably unhappy that he would choose to kill himself is something that's almost too painful for a parent to think about. But with the increasing prevalence of teen suicide, no parent can afford to ignore the possibility. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death for high-school students. 

Kids look at this world as being more and more hopeless. They have no answer for their pain and despair, so many are choosing suicide as their solution. When I was in high school -- a school with 3,000 students -- I never knew of any of my peers committing suicide. And even in my work years ago as a director of Young Life, suicide among the teens in our region was a very unusual event that I rarely heard of. 

Fact is, before the 1960's, suicide by adolescents happened only rarely; but today, nearly one in ten teens contemplates suicide, and over 500,000 attempt it each year. While suicide rates for all other ages have dropped, suicides among teens have nearly tripled.

Between the sexes, teen boys are more than four times as likely to commit suicide as girls. But girls are known to think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys. The difference is the method; girls attempt suicide by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves, and thankfully most are found in time and rescued. Boys tend to use more lethal methods, such as firearms, hanging, or jumping from heights.

The Warning Signs

Suicide is a teen's last attempt to ease the pain, to make a statement, or it is just a wrong decision giving a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  Teens don't see the bigger picture; they only see the "right now."  They get wrapped up in the emotions of the moment and tend to only think about a week ahead -- that's all.  And when you mix immature short-sightedness with feelings of utter hopelessness, some kids think they cannot live with the pain another day. Other kids who contemplate suicide are filled with rage over teasing by their peers or the way they feel they've been mistreated by family. They choose suicide as a tragic form of payback. 

That reminds me of Kerri. She was the "perfect kid." She loved church, was involved in mission projects, was adored by her brothers, and stayed away from sex, drugs, and alcohol. Her parents allowed their stunning daughter to date at age 16. But on her first date, the guy tried to go too far, and Kerri was shocked and stunned by the encounter.

Her parents asked about the date, and she shared what had happened. Kerri's father, in the heat of the moment, blamed Kerri. His words verbally crucified his daughter. When Kerri stated that what this boy did made her want to commit suicide, her dad said she didn't have the guts to do it. Feeling devalued and misunderstood, Kerri decided to show her dad how gutsy she really was. She got into her parents' medicine cabinet and took 30 sleeping pills. Kerri's parents had no idea what the fight had done to their daughter until dad came upstairs to apologize, found Kerri asleep, and couldn't wake her.

She awoke a few hours later after being rushed to the emergency room and having her stomach pumped. She wasn't rebellious; she was just sending her dad a message. If she showed her dad that he was wrong about her being too afraid to kill herself, she could also prove he was also wrong about the way she handled her date.

Like Kerri, most teens contemplating suicide give some type of warning to friends or loved ones ahead of time. It can be subtle and or it can be blurted out in a rage.  Either way, it's important for parents to watch for those threats or warning signs and take them seriously, so their teen can get the help they need.

Parents should be aware of these other warning signs that their teenager may be having suicidal thoughts:  

  • They may begin to isolate themselves, pulling away from friends or family
  • They may no longer participate in what was their favorite things or activities
  • They may have recently developed trouble thinking clearly
  • They may have changes in their personality (darker, more anxious, or non-caring)
  • They may be experiencing changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • They may talk about suicide or death in general
  • They may express feelings of hopelessness or guilt
  • They may exhibit self-destructive behavior (substance abuse, dangerous driving, recklessness, excessive risk taking)
  • They may have changes in their personal hygiene and appearance
  • They may complain about anxiety-related physical problems (stomachaches, headaches, hives, fatigue, blurred vision)
  • They may have difficulty accepting praise or rewards.

If you see any of these signs in your teen, talk to them about your concerns and seek professional help from a physician or a qualified mental health professional. With the support of family and appropriate treatment, teenagers who are suicidal can heal and return to more healthy thinking.

If you ever hear your teen say, "I'm going to kill myself," or "I'm going to commit suicide," always take such statements seriously and immediately seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional. Don't walk away. Don't wait.  Get them to a hospital immediately, even if they don't want to go or say they were just fooling with you. 

Hospitalization is needed whenever a teen is a danger to himself.  Extreme cutting, bizarre behavior, extreme depression, suicidal thoughts, or excessive drug or alcohol use coupled with emotional issues are just a few of the symptoms that might warrant hospitalization. A parent shouldn't hesitate to hospitalize their child if they fear for their life. It's better to be safe than sorry.

It's also important to be proactive in regard to making sure that the main tools of committing suicide are not readily available to a suicidal teen.  For boys, lock up guns in the house so they are not accessible.  For girls, monitor razor blades and make sure drugs like sleeping pills and pain killers are not accessible in your house. You may need to regularly go through her dresser, purse, backpack and closet to make sure she isn't storing any herself that she's bought or gotten from friends. And when a suicidal girl is taking a bath, knock on the door periodically to get a response.

Be Sure to Talk About It

If you see mild warning signs, asking your teen if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide can be helpful. Such questions filled with love and concern will provide assurance that you care and will give them the chance to talk about their problems. Get them to commit to you that if they ever do have those thoughts, they'll let you or someone else know.  If your teen doesn't feel comfortable talking with you, suggest a more neutral person, such as another relative, a counselor, a pastor, a coach, or your child's doctor.

It's important to keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love. If your teen confides in you their loss of hope or control of their life, show that you take those concerns seriously. It's important not to minimize, mock or discount what your teen is going through, as this can increase his or her sense of hopelessness.

Depression Can Lead to Suicide

Each year, thousands of at-risk teens are diagnosed with clinical depression. Most of the signs of depression are the same as suicide warning signs, so depression needs your attention.  If left untreated or ignored, it can be a devastating illness for the teen and their family and it can lead to suicide.

There are different treatments for depression, but keep in mind that teen depression is often not treated the same as depression in adults. There are medications available to help teens with depression, but typically they are needed only temporarily. Treatment of teen depression must involve regular counseling and close supervision, since some medical treatments can make the depression more severe before they take full effect and begin helping. The good news is that most teens grow out of depression in a few years.

A depressed teen may have been having relational problems at home or is being picked on or bullied at school. But usually severe depression comes from another problem in their life such as an eating disorder, drug addiction, physical abuse, loss, or medical condition. Some teens just need to eat a better diet and get more sleep at night, but depression and suicidal thoughts are not something I'd recommend anyone treat with home remedies. A depressed teen generally doesn't have the ability or strength to solve their own depression.  Attempting to help "shake them out of it" can cause the depression and despair to deepen, since it only serves to point out their own failure to improve their life.

What's  a Parent To Do?

If you are the parent of a depressed or suicidal teen, it's important that you try to understand them, listen to them and try not to be accusing. Respect your teen's opinions and problems and avoid blaming them or yourself for their feelings. Being a teenager is hard today and your child is justified in their feelings, even if you may not agree or understand. When you realize this, you can help your child.   

Remain in contact; even if you no longer have any control over your child's life.  It can make all the difference.  Do what you can to bring family members and the friends they've abandoned back into their life. Get out family pictures and videos to show them better times. 

No matter what mischief your child is doing in their life, hope is needed more than judgment at this time.  So encourage them by getting them out to experience good things that can add abundance to their life.  Sometimes it helps to ask a positive-thinking relative to take them into their home for a time to give the teen a change of scenery.  Get them on a good diet.  Get them outdoors to soak in some vitamin D.  Regular exercise really helps.  And find a loving pet that they can take care.  Having the responsibility for a pet can sometimes cause a teen to think twice before taking themselves out of the picture.  It also gives them a "pal" to talk to who is totally loyal and non-condemning. 

Finally, plan fun events several months in the future that they can look forward to, and keep reminding them of that date.  For teenagers, the point is to create a bridge to help them get past this period of hopelessness and into a better mindset.

Please don't be slow in getting professional help.  I've seen many hundreds of teenagers who have become different people from medication designed to correct a deficiency in their developing brain.  Others are helped by regular counseling to deal with their inner issues, or with treatment for their drug habit or other addictions in their life.  Get the help your teen needs, before they become a statistic.

July 30, 2010


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and executive director of Heartlight, a residential counseling program for struggling adolescents. Mark can also be followed on Twitter @markgregston and at Facebook at /parentingteens.