Suicide: An Increasing Risk for Teens

Imagine Hope Counseling Group extends our hearts, thoughts, sympathy, and prayers to all the family and friends of James Dungy, as they grieve such a monumental loss. The death of the son of our beloved Indianapolis Colt’s head coach, Tony Dungy, and the alarmingly high rate of suicide in the U.S. really emphasizes the need for continual education on suicide for our youth. Suicide rates in adolescents and youth remain unacceptably high in the United States. It is our hope that through continual education to the public on the statistics, risk factors, warning signs, and possible intervention strategies for suicide, that we will collectively work together and begin to see those numbers decline. Statistics and Facts:

  • Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in teens, and overall in youths ages 10-19 (Anderson and Smith 2003).
  • Only car accidents and homicides kill more people between 15 and 24 than suicide.
  • Roughly 1% of all teens attempt suicide and about 1% of those suicide attempts result in death. For teens who have clinical depression, the rates of suicidal thinking and behavior are much higher. Most teens who have depression think about suicide, and between 15% and 30% of teens with serious depression who think about suicide, go on to make a suicide attempt.
  • Though women make more attempts at suicide, men are more likely to succeed (Krug et al. 2002).
  • There are 4 male suicides for every 1 female suicide (CDC 2003).
  • Of the total number of suicides among ages 15 to 24 in 2001, 86% were male and 14% were female (Anderson and Smith 2003).
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students.

To contemplate suicide at any age is an awful experience to endure. For adolescents and teens—who have a lifetime of potential ahead of them, it seems doubly awful. For someone who has never experienced that struggle, it can also seem almost unfathomable to understand why someone would contemplate, or even make an attempt at ending their own life. In order to help our youth understand how to find other ways of coping than suicide, we all must work to better understand what can impact a teenager’s tendency to see suicide as an option for solving their problems.



Through the course of development, adolescence and youth is recognized as one of the most difficult, confusing, and volatile of all developmental stages. Adolescence is characterized by role changes and is the point in our development where we are beginning to try and form our identity. In addition, adolescents and young adults often experience stress, anger, confusion, and depression from situations occurring in their friendships, families, schools, or communities. Because of the many changes and challenges taking place in adolescence, communication can be problematic. As a result, teens often feel very isolated and alone in their confusion. Many times, teens will feel embarrassed for having these thoughts and feelings, and will keep them even more closely guarded, not realizing that there is help available to them in working through their internal struggles. Such feelings can overwhelm young people and lead them to consider suicide as a “solution.” Few schools and communities have suicide prevention plans that include screening, referral, and crisis intervention programs for youth (Lyness 2002).



Risk Factors There are times in a teens life where certain things can cause them to be more at risk for, or vulnerable to suicide. Some of these include:

  • Teen Depression What makes some teens start to think about suicide—or even worse, plan to do something with the intention of ending their own life? One of the biggest factors to teen suicide is Depression: Most teens who have depression think about suicide, and between 15% and 30% of teens with serious depression who think about or contemplate suicide, go on to make a suicide attempt. Hormonal changes, as well as sleep cycles, which are both changing drastically in adolescence, have a large impact on mood and can make teens more vulnerable to depression. While most teens experience some depression as a passing mood (for example, feeling sadness, disappointment, grief, or loneliness as a normal reaction to some of the struggles of life), sometimes depression doesn’t lift after a few hours or a few days. It is when the depressed feeling lasts for more days than not, and begins to feel too overwhelming and heavy to bear, that a teen crosses over into an emotional state that has a high risk of suicide. Depression distorts a person’s viewpoint, allowing them to focus only on their failures, shortcomings, and disappointments and to exaggerate the negative things. The depressed thinking is what convinces someone there is nothing to live for, and makes them believe the world is a better place without them—even though it is all untrue! The positive news is that depression is highly treatable with the right help. The hopelessness they feel, and the hurt and despair can be healed. It is important to encourage our youth to talk about how they are feeling, to model this kind of communication to them, and to provide them with the information on options for help available to them.
  • Substance Abuse Problems Alcohol and some drugs have depressive effects on the brain. Misuse of substances can bring on serious depression and subsequent suicidal ideation. This risk is even higher in those who might be prone to depression because of their biology, family history, or current stress level. Many suicide attempts occur when a teen is under the influence of a substance, as the alcohol or drugs alter a person’s judgement and ability to look at risks, think of solutions to problems, and make good choices.
  • Intense Anger issues
  • Impulsivity
  • Body image issues and those with eating disorders
  • Intense and prolonged self esteem issues
  • Having experienced a recent loss (e.g., divorce, death of friend or family member, death of a pet, breakup of a dating relationship, being “outed” or rejected by a group of peers or a friend)
  • Having experienced a crisis (e.g., unintended pregnancy, being harmed by abuse or rape)
  • Teens with a relative or family member who have committed suicide in the past
  • The anniversary date of a tragic event
  • Experiencing great difficulty in school performance (e.g., failing exams, fears of not passing a grade level)
  • Having direct access to guns

Warning Signs- What to look for

While there aren’t always outwardly noticeable warning signs that a person is contemplating taking their own life, there can sometimes be signs that point to possible suicidal thoughts or plans. Sometimes you will see one or two. Sometimes there will be many. Sometimes you won’t see any signs until it is too late. Every situation is different and unique. Trust your instincts. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, the chances are, it probably is. Some of the warning signs to watch for are:

  • A previous suicide attempt
  • Depression, great sadness
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Marked changes in personality and mood (including an uncharacteristic change from a period of depressed or sad mood to one that seems very happy, cheerful and peaceful, for no apparent outward reason. Sometimes this can indicate that a person has made the decision to attempt suicide, and is finally “at peace” with, or have found a “solution” to their pain)
  • Talking about suicide, talking about “going away”, saying that life isn’t worth living, wanting to die, expressing feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness
  • Giving away personal possessions, cleaning their room and throwing things out they own
  • Expressing extreme feelings of guilt or shame (feeling like a bad person who doesn’t have the right to live)
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Isolating behavior, such as withdrawing from activities, pulling away from family and friends
  • Overly social or emotional behavior that appears out of place to recent mood and behavior—(e.g., making connections with important friendships or relationships from the past that might be a person’s way of saying goodbye)
  • Changes in eating habits and appetite
  • Changes to sleep patterns (sleeping excessively, not sleeping well, waking early in the morning, waking intermittently during the night)
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Having difficulty communicating (being unable to talk or having great difficulty talking)
  • Losing interest in things they previously enjoyed
  • Loss of interest in personal appearance
  • Marks of self-harming, such as scratches, burns, or wounds on the body
  • Sudden marked behavioral changes, such as restlessness or reckless behavior (driving too fast, taking inappropriate risks)
  • Alcohol and Drug use (including abuse of prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, and use of illegal substances)
  • Having a friend or family member who has committed suicide

Getting Help

  • If you notice warning signs, don’t be afraid to confront that person. It is a myth that confronting someone out of concern could possibly “plant” the idea of suicide in someone’s mind. Though not every situation is this way, most teens are willing to discuss their thoughts and feelings if confronted by someone out of love and concern. Just talking about it can help the person to feel less isolated and alone, more understood, and can assist the person in seeing that suicide isn’t the way to get through a painful time— to realize there are other solutions that are much better. It might make the difference in the person getting the additional help they need.
  • DO NOT ATTEMPT TO BE THE SOLE INDIVIDUAL THAT HELPS SOMEONE WHO IS CONTEMPLATING SUICIDE. Do not keep the person’s suicidal thoughts or feelings “a secret”, even if they swear you to secrecy. This can be very difficult for teens, as they feel entrusted by the individual, and fear that they will be hurting the person even worse or betraying them by sharing their deepest feelings with an adult or a parent. If someone is contemplating suicide, they are depressed, and are unable to see that suicide is never the answer to their problems. They need professional help, guidance, and support. Do not assume that the feeling will just “go away”, or wait to see if the person starts to “feel better”. Taking the risk of making that person angry for breaking the promise of secrecy just might be the thing that saves that person’s life.
  • If you feel suicidal, or have been struggling with depression that is leading to thoughts of suicide, talk to anyone you know, as soon as you can—a friend, a pastor or clergy from your church, a teacher, school counselor, a coach, your doctor, or a trusted adult. Again, when a person has been feeling down for so long, it’s hard to see that suicide is NOT the answer—it’s a permanent solution to a very temporary and fixable problem.
  • If you are contemplating suicide, or if you think a friend is contemplating suicide, call your local emergency services, or call the National Suicide Helpline: 1-800-SUICIDE. The call is toll-free, and the phone is answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by experienced and trained professional counselors. You do not have to give them your name. They can advise you further in what to do to get help for yourself if you are suicidal, or for your friend, if they are refusing to call on their own. If your friend is contemplating suicide, DO NOT LEAVE THEM ALONE. Call your emergency services (911), the suicide helpline, or a trusted adult, and stay with that person until help arrives.
  • If you have a friend or know a teen who is going through a difficult time or crisis—such as the divorce of a parent, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, a move or change in residence or schools or a death of a friend or loved one—ask them how they are doing, how they are coping, if they are getting support, and if they need more support.

Surviving the Suicide of a Friend or Loved One


Even if you do get help for your friend from an adult or professional, that person might still attempt or commit suicide. Sometimes, teens who make a suicide attempt—or die as a result of a suicide attempt, seem to give no clue beforehand. This can leave the family and friends of that individual feeling extremely sad, guilty, and confused. It is important that the family and friends of someone who have attempted, or died from suicide, realize that there aren’t always ways of knowing beforehand. Many times, teens who are suicidal make a suicide attempt in an impulsive moment of overwhelming pain as a way of crying out for help—but in all reality, don’t actually want to die. Friends and family of those who commit suicide should not blame themselves, and realize that even if there were intermittent warning signs, they couldn’t be responsible for interpreting that person’s words or behavior. You should never blame yourself. You could question yourself and blame yourself forever, which will only make you more sad, ashamed, and depressed, and it won’t bring that person back. When someone attempts or commits suicide, those around them might feel afraid, uncomfortable, or intimidated to bring it up with the person (if they lived through the attempt) or the family members. Try to resist this desire to remain closed; this is a time when everyone needs to feel emotionally supported, and absolutely needs to feel connected to others. There is no right or wrong way to feel if you are healing from the loss of a suicide from a friend or loved one. Any feeling is appropriate and it’s important that you allow yourself to grieve and heal by feeling this emotional pain in your own way, and in your own time. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one through suicide, there are many resources available for you in helping to work through your grief. It is best for you to take advantage of those resources, whether it involves talking to a trusted adult, friend, spiritual leader, or professional counselor.