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. Many people live with the false idea that when teens make statements about suicidal or self-harming, they’re only doing it for attention. As a parent, you should take these statements seriously.

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

In This Article

Teen Suicide Statistics

Many teens struggle with life-threatening behaviors, which may include having suicidal thoughts and gestures. Unfortunately, this alarming struggle has increased in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the suicide rate for people aged 10 to 24 has risen 57.4% since 2007. 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.

According to Kansas State University, suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24. These numbers become even more severe when you consider adolescents dealing with depression. In fact, over half of youth who suffer from depression may attempt suicide at least once, which results in a 7% mortality rate — half of which include a firearm.

Teen Suicide Statistics

If your teen has been misusing alcohol or drugs, then you know how much effort goes into overcoming those addictions. But it’s also important to know how this drug and alcohol abuse can affect suicide rates. The same findings from Kansas State University reveal that 53% of adolescents who commit suicide already have a preexisting struggle with substance misuse.

On top of all these statistics, Kansas State University found that depression also affects suicide rates. A young person is 14 times more likely to attempt suicide for the first time if they are experiencing depression. These stats show how important it is to be aware of your teen’s risk factors so you can intervene before thoughts become life-threatening behaviors or gestures.

Teen Suicide Risk Factors

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.

Here are some of the most common teen suicide risk factors:

  • A recent loss: Loss can leave a hole in a teen’s life that they might feel can never be filled again. Loss includes the death of a friend, family member or pet. It can also include the divorce of parents, a breakup with their significant other or even an event like moving away from their hometown.
  • A psychiatric disorder: Psychiatric disorders are conditions that lead to an impairment of someone’s behavioral, emotional and cognitive functioning. One example stated above is depression, but the list is long, with many teens experiencing mental illness in a variety of ways.
  • Previous suicide attempts: A Harvard study shows that 7% of people who attempted suicide once went on to die of suicide at a later date. With 23% of those in the study making nonfatal reattempts at suicide, parents should understand that if their child attempted suicide in the past, the journey of overcoming this struggle may just be beginning.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A family history of suicide: People who have had a parent or sibling commit suicide are 65% more likely to attempt suicide than those whose family members have died of other causes.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Warning Signs of Suicidal Behavior

After determining if your child is at risk based on the list above, you need to be on the lookout for warning signs. Some life-threatening behaviors are more obvious than others, but they all show that it’s time to get your adolescent the help they need.

Warning Signs of Suicidal Behavior

Here are some of the warning signs of suicidal behavior, including life-threatening thoughts and behaviors, in teens:

  • Changes in personality: If your teen’s personality suddenly changes in uncharacteristic ways, there could be more serious issues under the surface, including thoughts of life-threatening behaviors. Some of these changes could be an increase in isolation for a teen who has always had an active social life, increased irritability or outburst, or expressions that they no longer care about things that were important to them. Some teens may start engaging in erratic and reckless behaviors, making poor judgements, and increasing conflict with family members, peers, or teachers.
  • Changes in behavior: Noticeable changes in sleeping habits, whether it is sleeping too much or not sleeping enough, as well as eating habits, over eating or lacking appetite, are important signals about the state of a person’s mental health. Many teens will engage in substance use or other avoidant behaviors in order to not feel their unwanted feelings.
  • Engaging in harmful activities: A warning sign for many teens is engaging in activities that harm themselves or the people around them. Bullying and fighting are two examples of harmful activities that should be cause for concern. Another example is self-harm, as that can be a sign that your teen’s ability to cope with unwanted feelings is at an all-time low. When teens don’t have the skills to effectively cope with the stressors in their lives, unhealthy coping puts them in a dangerous and vulnerable position.
  • Suicidal statements: If your teen has started talking about their own death, you should take those statements seriously. Keep your ears turned toward statements that express your teen’s desire to make themselves disappear. If your child says that everyone’s lives would be easier if they weren’t around, then it is time to intervene and seek help before they make any life-altering decisions.

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 it’s important that you 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 of the most important 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: 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.
  • 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 care for disorders: 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.

What to Do if Your Teen Is Suicidal

If you know your child is struggling with life-threatening behaviors or has attempted suicide in the past, there is hope. Now is the best time to take action. You can come alongside your teen and help them through this difficult time by giving them the help and treatment they need.

What to Do if Your Teen Is Suicidal

Here are some of the ways you can help your loved one:

  • 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.
  • Make it difficult for your teen to self-harm: If your teen is suicidal, one of the first things you should do is secure or remove any items they could use to engage in the act of self-harm. Such items can include razors, knives, guns and medications. In addition to providing a supporting environment, actively removing these dangerous items from the equation can reduce the chance your teen acts out on their self-destructive impulses.
  • 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.
  • Enroll your teen in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is a multi-staged psychotherapy process that helps adolescents stabilize their behaviors, experience their emotions, build a healthy lifestyle and even establish a feeling of connection with a greater whole. With both outpatient and residential treatment options available, there’s sure to be a path toward helping your child with DBT treatment.

The Effect of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic and related events have been hard on everyone in one way or another. This includes teens who saw their schooling disrupted, missed out on valuable time with friends and felt isolated during hardships. Many adolescents experienced deep loss as a result of COVID-19 taking away their loved ones. Others felt their existing depression become worse as a result of lockdowns and quarantines keeping them from getting the essential vitamin D they need for positive mood stabilization.

Everyone’s experience has been different during the pandemic, but one thing remains clear. COVID-19 has caused an increase in mental health concerns, including depression and other psychological conditions. This has led to an increased risk of suicide in teens, especially females.

Parents and guardians are encouraged to be even more aware of their child’s well-being during the difficulties of the pandemic as it continues. Take more time to talk and be aware of the items around your house that could pose a risk to your teen. Now could also be the time to reach out to a trusted DBT provider.

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

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

Hillside offers a comprehensive continuum of care for teens experiencing emotional, mental and behavioral concerns that lead them toward self-destructive behavior. We are one of Atlanta, Georgia’s oldest non-profit organizations after our establishment was founded over 130 years ago. Since then, we’ve continued to give Atlanta and the entire state of Georgia therapy treatment programs to help adolescents who need it most.

We invite you to contact us today and speak with a clinician about your situation and needs.

Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

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!