Adolescent Suicide Risk Factors, Warning Signs & Protective Factors

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | January 12, 2022

Adolescent suicide can be a difficult topic to face, but it is one of the most important concepts for parents and guardians to recognize to protect their loved ones. Young people are continuing to report struggles with their emotional and social lives, and as the data for suicide in youth continues to rise, parents should know the warning signs and learn about resources for help. 

As you’ll learn throughout this article, suicidal statements are one of several signs that your teen may be at risk of attempting to take their own life. As a parent, you should always take these statements seriously. Some of the other signs are more subtle but just as critical to notice and address. Given the right help, your teen can see that their life is indeed worth living.

In This Article

Important Definitions

Let’s start with defining some terms. Suicide encompasses the following terms:

  • Suicide: Death caused by injuring oneself with an explicit or inferred intent to die.
  • Suicidal ideation or suicidal thoughts: Having thoughts, ideas or plans to end one’s life. Suicidal ideation can be passive or active. Passive suicidal ideations are usually expressed in terms of wishing to be dead, not wanting to wake up or not wanting to be alive. However, these individuals do not have an active plan or intention to follow through with suicidal actions. Active suicidal ideation usually involves expressing the intent to end one’s life with active plans. A person with active suicidal thoughts may work to secure means of ending their life and make plans to carry out their intent.
  • Suicide attempt: Nonfatal self-injurious behavior with stated or inferred intent to die.

Self-injury or self-harming behaviors are not always suicide attempts. There are people who engage in purposeful acts of physical harm to the self withoutthe intent to die. This behavior is usually called non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). However, engagement in NSSI can be one of the predictors of future suicide.

It is common for parents to feel unequipped to help their children. The onset of puberty can exacerbate the emotional and social turmoil felt during the adolescent years. However, there is hope. The first step is to recognize what’s going on under the surface. Learning the warning signs of suicidal thinking in youth can help parents know when to get their child professional help.

Statistics About Suicide

Suicide is a national crisis that has impacted countless individuals, couples and families. Our country has seen a 36% increase in suicide rates between 2000 and 2021, and suicide affects people of all ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the suicide rate for people aged 10 to 24 has risen 57.4% between 2007 and 2018, and it was the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10-14 in 2021. 

These numbers become even more severe when you consider adolescents dealing with depression or substance use disorders. In fact, around half of youth who take their lives had depression, and individuals with alcohol or opioid use disorders may be more susceptible to suicidal ideation, attempts or death. 

Today, more than ever, we understand that just because a person is young doesn’t lessen the danger of suicidal thoughts or gestures. These heartbreaking statistics are a stark warning that everyone should be aware of the risk of suicide. Without the right support system and treatment, teens may act on their suicidal thoughts. This can lead to serious injury, further family trauma and death. Knowing the signs of a suicidal child or adolescent means you could help save a life. 

Suicide Causes and Risk Factors

Many parents of youth with life-threatening behaviors or thoughts of suicide struggle to understand what caused their child’s suicidal ideation. Thoughts of suicide often stem from the feeling that an individual can’t cope. A specific situation or life, in general, is too overwhelming. Those without hope for the future may grasp the idea that suicide is the only way out. This preoccupation, or “tunnel vision,” during a crisis is the leading cause of suicidal ideation. 

Adolescent and teen suicide risk factors are variables or experiences that could make a young person more likely to think about attempting suicide. More risk factors present in a teen’s life could raise their chances of viewing suicide as the answer to the problems and struggles they are facing. Becoming aware of these risk factors can help you, as the parent or guardian, take the next step toward suicide prevention and the road toward recovery for your child.

Consider some of the following suicide causes risk factors for young people.

Individual Risk Factors

Individual risk factors might include:

  • A mental health condition: Having a mental illness or condition like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts, especially for teens without healthy coping skills. As many as 49.5% of youth may struggle with an untreated mental health issue, so parents need to understand the necessity of mental health treatment for youth.
  • Previous suicide attempts: Prior suicide attempts can increase a teen’s risk of future attempts. 
  • Substance use: Substance use is a contributing factor to depression and other psychiatric concerns, and it also contributes to the number of suicide attempts each year. Often, drugs, alcohol, depression and life-threatening behaviors in teens go hand-in-hand.
A mental health condition

Relationship Risk Factors

The following adverse relationship experiences could contribute to risk: 

  • A recent loss: People in their teen years are in a vulnerable stage of life. Losing a family member, having a friend move away or experiencing the passing of a beloved pet can be a profound loss, leading to thoughts of suicide if left untreated. 
  • Unaccepting or unsupportive environments: A lack of social support and acceptance can drive teens into a state of isolation. This can increase their risk of suicide, especially in teens whose home or social life is unsupportive of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Unsupportive environments could also cause teens to avoid asking for help out of fear that they won’t be taken seriously.
  • Family history of suicide: A family history of suicide can increase a person’s risk of self-harm and other damaging behaviors. One study found that genetics might account for as much as 50% of the risk
  • Bullying: Being the victim of a bully is a risk factor for teen suicide. But you should also know whether your teen is the one doing the bullying, as this can also be a risk factor.
  • Lack of social support: Not having a support system can lead to isolation and loneliness. Teens might feel like they have nowhere to turn in tough situations, sometimes leading to helplessness and the belief that suicide is the only answer. 
  • Relationship trauma: Traumatic events in a teen’s life — such as domestic violence, neglect or abuse — can all lead to self-harm and suicidal ideation. Be observant of those who have been directly impacted by or witnessed traumatic events in childhood or adolescence. 

Community Risk Factors

These community factors may impact suicide risk:

  • Barriers to life-saving services: Unreliable transportation, a lack of bilingual service providers and the financial burden of paying for services are all barriers that could cause teens to be unable to get the help they need.
  • Community violence: Experiencing community violence may increase an individual’s risk of suicide. 
  • Discrimination: Individuals who experience discrimination may be at a higher risk for suicide. For example, one report shows that racial discrimination is linked to high suicide rates. 
  • Stress of acculturation: Acculturation is the process of assimilating to a different — usually dominant — culture. Acculturation may lead to an increased risk of suicide-related outcomes

Societal Risk Factors

Societal factors that may increase adolescent or teen suicide risk can include:

  • Access to lethal items: If your teen has easy access to items like pills or firearms, they could be at an increased risk of suicide if their thoughts are leading them in that direction. Easy access to weapons, pills or other means of self-harm increases the likelihood of a person attempting or completing suicide.
  • Stigma: Due to the societal stigma attached to asking for help, teens can often feel ashamed talking about their depression or suicidal thoughts and, therefore, do not get the help they need.
  • Social media: Young people who use social media are three times as likely to have depression, and 6% of teenagers who reported suicidal thoughts traced them back to Instagram. 
  • COVID-19: Many adolescents experienced deep loss as a result of COVID-19 taking away their loved ones. Others felt their depression become worse as a result of lockdowns. Everyone’s experience has been different, but COVID-19 has caused an increase in mental health concerns, including depression, which has led to an increased risk of suicide in teens, especially females.

What Are the Warning Signs of Suicidal Ideation Among Adolescent Youth?

After determining if your child is at risk based on the list above, you need to be on the lookout for warning signs of life-threatening behaviors, which may include having suicidal thoughts and gestures. Youth often hide their deepest feelings behind smiles and simple statements of “I’m fine” when asked how they’re doing. This brave face often makes it difficult to suspect their internal struggles or can cause them to appear disengaged. 

While some signals may be easier to see than others, it’s essential to maintain open lines of communication with your child, especially if you have any suspicions of suicidal ideation. 

What are the warning signs of suicidal thoughts in youth? Here are some red flags you should look out for:

Behavioral Warning Signs

Behavioral teen suicide warning signs can include:

  • Suicidal statements, such as “I wish I were never born,” “I wish I were dead” or “When I’m gone….”
  • Social withdrawal and isolation.
  • Giving away belongings with no logical explanation.
  • Obtaining items needed for a suicide attempt.
  • Increased drug or alcohol usage.
  • Engaging in harmful activities like fighting. 
  • Engaging in self-harm behaviors. 

Physical Warning Signs

You might also notice physical warning signs like:

  • Changes in normal routines or sleep patterns.
  • Changes in eating habits.
  • Injuries or scars from previous suicide attempts.

Cognitive Warning Signs

Cognitive youth suicide warning signs can include:

  • Preoccupation with death and dying.
  • Sudden calmness after a period of increased emotional turmoil.
  • Changes in personality. 

Psychosocial Warning Signs

Watch for psychosocial warning signs, such as:

  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness, self-loathing or feeling trapped.
  • Extreme mood swings.
  • Intense emotional pain.
  • Increased anxiety or agitation.
  • Psychosis or paranoia. 

If you notice any of these changes in mood or behavior enough to cause concerns, contact professional help as soon as possible.

Teen Suicide Protective Factors

The good news is that you and your child both have the ability to take the road to lasting positive change. Each of the following actions can make a difference in your teen’s life, so you should engage in as many of them as possible. And if your teen is struggling in any of these areas, now is always the best time to seek help to achieve a healthier, happier life. Here are some teen suicide protective factors:

The Ability to Problem-Solve

Good problem-solving abilities can help your child overcome obstacles in their life in a responsible and mature way. Teens can better resolve conflicts if they can see problems as they occur and create effective strategies to manage them before they escalate.

Strong Interpersonal Connections and Support System

People crave human connection. If your child has strong bonds with their family, friends and community, they may be less likely to consider engaging in life-threatening actions. This is due to your child feeling supported and loved, but it also has a lot to do with your child having trusted individuals to turn to when they feel they’re at their lowest point.

A supportive and caring parent can also encourage positive coping skills by modeling them through their own behavior. Confide in your teen about times you had trouble coping and share positive strategies that made you feel better. This can also reinforce the importance of asking for help. 

Strong Interpersonal Connections and Support System

Difficulty Accessing Lethal Items

Even an adolescent with thoughts of engaging in life-threatening behaviors can be less likely to follow through if they lack a means of carrying out the action. If your teen has difficulty accessing lethal items like medications or household firearms, then their chances of committing suicide are lower.

Healthy Cultural or Religious Beliefs

Living according to cultural or religious values that discourage suicide and promote the sanctity of life and self-preservation can help protect your child from submitting to thoughts of self-harm.

Easier Access to Intervention

Appropriate clinical interventions, including family therapy, individual therapy and psychotherapy, are crucial in overcoming self-destructive behavior in teens. If a teen has easier access to these potentially life-saving intervention methods, they will be better able to overcome their current struggles.

Effective Behavioral Health Care

Your teen will be better equipped to resist self-destructive thoughts and actions if they can receive proper care for physical, mental and substance use disorders. Proper care in these areas often involves ongoing, healthy relationships with professionals whom your child can trust.

Healthy Habits

Numerous studies show the role good physical health has on mental health and vice versa. Be proactive by promoting healthy habits at home, like eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting proper sleep and exercise. Discourage substance use and other risky behaviors. You can also safeguard your teen’s behavioral and mental health by ensuring they have access to various clinical interventions, such as therapy and counseling.

Interests and Hobbies

Hobbies and group events can foster a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-worth in your teen. Encourage them to get involved in team sports or Scouts. Within these settings, they can healthily channel their stress and energy. Teens can also improve their social skills and make new friends, which can go a long way in their mental wellness. Ensure your teen has plenty of opportunities to participate in these events, whether they’re offered in your community or your child’s school. 

Healthy Coping Skills

The more resourceful and skilled in stress reduction and problem-solving, the more likely your teen will be able to cope with challenging life situations. As a parent, you can promote healthier coping skills to ensure your teen views stressful situations as an opportunity for change rather than a reason for despair. Positive coping mechanisms can include:

  • Positive self-talk: Let your child know that it is OK to be proud of their achievements, no matter how small they might seem. Encourage them to talk about themselves and list their strengths while discouraging negative self-talk. 
  • Asking for help: While it’s crucial not to force your teen to speak to you if they don’t want to, encourage them to ask for help from trusted people when going through tough times. Create a safe space where they can speak without judgment, and be supportive rather than dismissive of their feelings. 
  • Taking a break: Sometimes, all your teen might need is to take a break from the source of their distress. That way, they have time to refocus their thoughts and energy, gaining more clarity and insight to take care of themselves. 
  • Healthy hobbies: Engaging in fun activities can help your teen lower stress and gain a more positive mindset. For instance, they might listen to music, draw, watch a movie, play a game or hang out with friends when dealing with stress.

Coping skills can be the most essential skills your teen ever learns. Over time, your child will be able to overcome any obstacle that comes their way.

What to Do if Your Child or Teen Is Suicidal

What to Do if Your Child or Teen Is Suicidal

If your child talks to you about their death or taking their own life, it is crucial to take the discussion seriously. Parents often feel helpless and sometimes guilty or angry. Be mindful of your own emotions so that your child can feel at ease having open communication without overreaction. Keep the focus on maintaining safety and getting help for your child to deal with their suicidal thoughts. 

You can help teens overcome suicidal thoughts and begin a path to recovery with a few steps:

Remove Substances From the Premises

Drugs and alcohol can exacerbate preexisting conditions in your teen, like depression and anxiety. Consider removing or hiding these items to reduce the chance of your teen finding them and using them illegally. This is especially crucial if your teen has a known history of substance use.

Talk to Them

Your child wants to feel support and acceptance from the people around them. Perhaps the most important person to give them the acceptance they crave is their parent or guardian. If you take the time to talk to them in an open, honest and accepting way, they may feel they have someone to turn to when they need it. Plus, talking is the first step in finding out more about the struggle so you can get your child the help they need.

It’s OK to ask direct questions about your child’s suicidal thoughts. Try to find out if they have a plan, means to execute the plan, a timeframe in mind and the intention to carry it out. People at the highest risk for committing suicide have these details worked out. 

If you assess your child to have an imminent risk, call 911 or take them to the ER or crisis stabilization hospital to be evaluated further.

Connect With Professionals

Even if it’s just a suspicion that your child is struggling or having suicidal thoughts, make an appointment with a mental health professional to assess the risk. These compassionate individuals are trained to develop a treatment plan — the first step to helping your child.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a type of behavioral therapy that aims to help people stabilize behaviors, experience emotions and build a healthier lifestyle. Sessions can also help your teen work on communication skills and change their perspective on life, enhancing that feeling of connection with a greater whole. 

At Hillside®, we offer intensive outpatient care, a minimum of six weeks of online intensive therapy for teens. Our outpatient care can address the symptoms that might be interfering with school, home and relationships. Virtual intensive outpatient (VIOP) clients can maintain their home and academic responsibilities while receiving intensive therapy to help them feel better and gain crucial coping skills for everyday stressors. Programs include: 

  • Social skills group therapy.
  • Experiential therapy.
  • Social-emotional learning.
  • Individual and family therapy.
  • Access to coaching calls with therapists outside of program hours.

Resources for Immediate Help

Sometimes, you have to trust your gut. Help is available if you or your youth are experiencing a crisis requiring immediate assistance. 

Here are some trusted resources you can contact right now:

Even if a loved one’s crisis or self-harming does not seem imminently life-threatening, it’s important to find professional mental health services. A trained mental health provider can offer treatment and support to see your family through each difficult moment. 

Contact Hillside® to Help Your Teen Experience a Life Worth Living

It’s common to feel helpless when you have a child struggling with suicidal ideation or self-destructive behaviors. Know that you are not alone. Many protective factors can help you prevent suicide and help your teen recover, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy. 

Hillside® offers a comprehensive continuum of care for teens experiencing emotional, mental and behavioral concerns that lead them toward self-destructive behavior. We are the leading residential mental health treatment center for children and families in Georgia, and our treatment for youth facing mental illness emphasizes empowering the family along with treating the youth. The goal is to have happy, healthy children return home to grow up with nurturing and supportive families.

Our experienced clinicians specialize in DBT for teens, providing a safe and nonjudgmental space for healing and growth. We invite you to contact us today to speak about your situation and needs.

Contact Hillside® to Help Your Teen Experience a Life Worth Living

Author

  • Hillside Clinical Education & Referral Relations Manager - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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Current Version
May 10, 2024
Written By: Angie Hoke
Edited By: Angie Hoke
January 12, 2022
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke