This Post: Teen Suicide and Depression: Why You Need to Tune Into Your Teen’s Mental Health (Post updated: 9/2022)
Suicide… it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. And yet, deep down inside, many parents feel that the nationwide issue of teen suicide doesn’t offer any real relevance to them, that something like that could never happen in their family or worse, they speak the overconfident words some parents later come to regret, “My child would never do that.”
While every parent would like to believe that their child isn’t capable of suicide, the increase in teen suicide has spawned heightened awareness and the harsh reality that suicide can happen to any child in any family. In many cases, however, the warning signs often associated with teen suicide go unrecognized and the silent screams of struggling children are left unheard until it’s too late.
How are parents expected to deal with this reality and what steps can they take to prevent their child from taking his or her own life?
According to The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, “Once you acknowledge that suicide is as much a risk factor for your child as not wearing a seatbelt while driving, using alcohol or drugs, or engaging in risky sexual behavior, you’ve taken the first step in prevention.”
Teen Suicide Rates are Climbing Steadily
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2007 and 2018 suicide rates steadily climbed.
During that time, suicide rates rose more than 30 percent among teen boys and they doubled among teen girls hitting an all-time 40-year record high.
COVID Triggered an Even Greater Spike
In October 2021, three prominent children’s health organizations declared that child and adolescent mental health had become a national emergency. The announcement followed a report from the CDC, which tracked emergency room visits from suspected suicide attempts before and during the pandemic. The results showed that in February and March 2021, those visits were 50 percent higher among girls ages 12 to 17 than during the same period in 2019.
Additionally, according to new data from the CDC, in 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. The new data also describe some of the severe challenges many teens encountered during the pandemic:
- More than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing at, insulting, or putting down the child.
- Fewer than half (47%) of youth reported feeling close to people at school during the pandemic.
- More than a quarter (29%) reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.
Other statistics are equally as alarming.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death for college-age youth ages 18-24.
- More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.
- Each day in our nation, there are on average more than 3,703 attempts of suicide by young people grades 9-12.
- Four out of five teens who attempt suicide gave clear warning signs.
- 18.8% of high school students admit to thinking about suicide and nearly 9% acknowledge actually making an attempt.
- Each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated in hospital emergency rooms across the U.S. for self-inflicted injuries.
According to Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, “People often think teens can’t get depressed or anxious, but they can. People also often think that it is ‘just normal teen angst.’ We need to make it okay to talk about things that are causing emotional pain. Dying by suicide shouldn’t be an option, and yet young people often feel as though it’s their only option.”
Is My Child Normal, Just Sad or Clinically Depressed?
No matter how tuned in parents are to their child, it can be extremely difficult to peel back the emotional layers to get to the root of what their child is actually feeling, especially considering that teens aren’t always adept at expressing their emotions.
Experts say better understanding begins with education and knowing what to look for.
Some of the more common symptoms associated with clinical depression that can help a parent differentiate whether their child is clinically depressed or simply experiencing the temporary blues are:
- Feelings of sadness or having a depressed mood for more than two weeks
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite — weight loss or weight gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Nearly everyone, including teenagers, has experienced some form of sadness in their lives. It’s simply part of life. Whether these feelings of sadness correlate directly to clinical depression or mental illness is a question only a mental health professional can answer.
However, most mental illness diagnoses boil down to a few important considerations including how long your child has been experiencing the symptoms of depression, how intense the symptoms are, how they are impacting your child’s ability to function personally, socially, and academically, and how appropriate their feelings of depression are to the situation in their lives.
A Word About Anxiety
Anxiety is now the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of adolescents according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And, according to data from the American College Health Association’s survey, over the last decade, anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services.
What Triggers Depression or Suicidal Thoughts?
Pinpointing what may be causing your child’s depression can be difficult; however, a number of things are often linked to its development. Research has shown that depression typically results from a combination of recent events and other long-term or personal factors, rather than one specific event or issue.
The factors that may serve as “triggers” to depression or suicidal thoughts include:
- A family history of suicide and/or suicide attempts
- Exposure to sexual, physical abuse, or violence
- Being a victim of bullying or cyber-bullying
- Profound loss or rejection such as the loss of a loved one or a break-up of a boyfriend or girlfriend
- Public humiliation at school or with friends
- Chronic medical condition
- Drugs or alcohol use
- Having access to weapons
In addition to these triggers, there is a growing dark side to the health and well-being of teens who are becoming more hyperfocused on academic success which may account for the jump in teen suicides in the fall when school is back in session.
With 44 percent of kids today reporting being worried about doing well in school, more teens today are experiencing anxiety and having feelings of extreme stress due to a range of academic pressure derived from a need for perfection, concern over grades, a heavy class load, parental or societal pressure, and extracurricular activities.
According to Psychology Today, the indirect effects of stress are often what cause depression to take hold.
When people experience chronic stress and lack of sleep, they often stop doing some of the healthy coping mechanisms that keep their mood on track.
Other emerging research is shedding light on the link between teen depression and suicide and screen time spent on cell phones and social media. One researcher found that teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are 71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide. And that’s regardless of the content consumed. Whether teens are watching funny animal videos or looking at something more serious, the amount of screen time — not the specific content — goes hand in hand with higher instances of depression.
When to Worry: Be on the Lookout for Striking Changes in Behavior
It’s possible that your child is just having a bad week, but if the anxiety or sadness has been plaguing them for two weeks or more, the situation deserves your attention.
Teenagers are often too embarrassed and avoid sharing their feelings of anxiety or sadness with others, including their parents, fearing it may be viewed as a sign of weakness or simply melodramatic behavior.
But because four out of five teens who attempt suicide give clear warning signs either verbally or behaviorally, it’s important to pay close attention not only to what your child is saying, but what they aren’t saying. A depressed teenager may not verbalize their feelings, but exhibit changes in their behavior or actions oftentimes seeking refuge alone, when secretly they’re struggling.
Changes such as pulling away from family and friends, being agitated or irritable, disengaging from activities they once enjoyed, refusing to go to school or changes in grades, are all red flags that might indicate your child is depressed. Other red flags include suddenly becoming unmotivated, complaining of headaches, stomach aches or other issues that don’t respond to treatment, expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, using drugs or alcohol to cope with problems, or becoming more aggressive, disruptiv,e or impulsive.
If you notice changes in your child that may indicate that they’re experiencing anxiety or depression, don’t take it lightly. Open the door of communication, ask questions and seek professional help. Above all, listen to your child calmly and give them the much-needed undivided attention and help they need.
The Warning Signs of Suicide: 13 Red Flags
Recognizing the warning signs associated with suicide is the first step in preventing your child from taking his or her own life. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics, here are 13 red flags that may indicate that your child is wrestling with thoughts of suicide:
- Marked changes in behavior such as a typically easygoing child becoming far more rebellious and difficult to communicate with or sudden changes in hygiene or sleep habits
- Uncharacteristic changes in appearance such as a sudden change in how your child dresses
- Sudden drastic change in academic performance
- Withdrawing from friends, family and regular activities
- Frequent complaints often associated with emotional distress including headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, etc.
- Expressing severe emotional pain or experiencing frequent sadness
- Making open suicidal comments to friends, family, and acquaintances including, “I wish I was dead,” “I won’t be a burden to you much longer,” or “It will all be over soon.” (Important Note: Even if your child talks about suicide jokingly, always take their comments seriously)
- Talking to friends, family, co-workers, etc., or posting on social media about feeling hopeless or trapped, that death is easier than living, feeling that they are a burden to others or specific comments about committing suicide
- Giving away personal, oftentimes prized, possessions
- Visiting or calling people to “say goodbye”
- Developing a preoccupation with death or dying
- Looking for or researching methods to die including medications, guns, sharp objects, etc.
- Suddenly becoming very cheerful or peaceful after a long bout with depression
Depression is Nothing to Be Feared or Ashamed Of
Experts agree that parents play a critical role in changing the conversation as it relates to their teens’ mental health.
First and foremost, parents and teens alike need to embrace the idea that depression is nothing to be feared, embarrassed about or ashamed of and that it should be openly discussed much like we discuss physical ailments.
Experts also agree that parents should follow their instincts if they suspect their child is suffering. After all, parents know their children best. The most important thing to remember is that depression is treatable.
The good news is, our society is beginning to take note of the staggering statistics, facing the harsh realization that teens in our society are under intense pressure and taking important steps to alter the course of fate for some teens. We’re becoming more accepting, attuned, and proactive as it relates to teen anxiety, depression, and suicide, and reinforcing the idea that there is treatment, there is hope and, with greater public awareness, there are brighter days ahead.
Where Can I Go if I Feel My Child Needs Help?
If you’re struggling with where to turn to find help for your child, here are a few resources available on The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide website:
- Not My Kid Video
- Learn the Facts About Suicide
- Talking to Your Kids About Suicide
- I’m Worried About My Child. Where Do I Start?
- Frequently Asked Questions and Questions to Ask About a Referral for Mental Health Services
- Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs
- How to Effectively Talk to Your Child About Depression
- 12 Things Parents Can Do to Help Prevent Suicide
Where Can I Call If I’m in a Crisis?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress 24/7, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals.
(The 988 is now active across the United States. This new, shorter phone number will make it easier for people to remember and access mental health crisis services. Please note, the previous 1-800-273-TALK (8255) number will continue to function indefinitely.)
Be the One to Make a Difference in ANY Child’s Life
We’re all in a position to help. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to make a difference in a child’s life who may be struggling. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s #BeThe1To offers guidelines for talking with someone who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. For more information, visit their site. 5 Action Steps for Communicating with Someone Who May Be Suicidal
Sources for this article include: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Parent Resource Program, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Healthychildren.org., American College Health Association and Web MD.