Warning Signs of Suicidal Behaviors in Youth

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | November 3, 2017

One of the most difficult experiences for a parent is to know that your child is in pain or danger and to feel powerless to help them. Young people are continuing to report struggles with their emotional and social life and the data for suicide in youth continues to rise, parents should know the warning signs and learn about resources for help. 

In This Article

Let’s start with defining some terms. Suicidal behaviors encompass 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 be alive, however, not having an active plan or intention to follow through with any actions to complete suicide. Active suicidal ideation are usually expressing the intent to end one’s life with active plans. The person with active suicidal thought may be working to secure means of ending ones life and making plans to carry out their intent.

Suicide Attempt – non-fatal self-injurious behavior with stated or inferred intent to die.

It is important to note that self-injury or self harming behaviors are not always a suicide attempt. There are people who engages in purposeful acts of physical harm to the self without the 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 child. 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 thoughts in youth can help parents know when to get their child professional help.

Resources For Immediate Help

Sometimes, it’s important 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. 

Statistics About Suicide

Suicide is a national crisis that has impacted countless individuals, couples and families. With each passing year, the rates of suicide continue to rise in our country — especially among the young and vulnerable. Today, more than ever, we understand that just because a person is young doesn’t lessen the danger of suicidal thoughts or gestures. 

Our country has seen a 30% increase in suicide rates over the last two decades. While suicide is the 12th leading cause of death overall in the U.S. — the statistics are even more troubling among young people. This tragedy is the second leading cause of death in kids ages 10 to 14 and the third leading cause among youth ages 15 to 24. 

These heartbreaking statistics are a stark warning that everyone should be aware of the risk of suicide. Knowing the signs of a suicidal child or adolescent means you could help save a life. 

Warning Signs of Suicidal Ideation

The signs of life-threatening behaviors, including suicidal ideation and gestures, are not always clear. 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 be looking out for:

Behavioral Warning Signs

  • Suicidal statements, such as “I wish I was 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.

Physical Warning Signs

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

Cognitive Warning Signs

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

Psychosocial Warning Signs

  • 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.

Causes and Risk Factors for Suicidal Ideation

Many parents of youth with life-threatening behaviors or thoughts struggle to understand what caused their child’s suicidal ideation. It doesn’t matter your background, ethnicity or economic status — a wide variety of genetic, environmental and physical risk factors work in tandem to bring about suicidal ideation. 

So, what’s the common thread? Thoughts of suicide often stem from the feeling that they can’t cope. A specific situation or life, in general, is too overwhelming. Those without hope for the future may grasp onto the idea that suicide is the only way out. This preoccupation or “tunnel vision” during a crisis is the leading cause of suicidal ideation. 

Some of the risk factors that lead to suicidal ideation include:

  • Stressful situations, such as relationship problems or family conflict.
  • Traumatic life situations, such as the loss of a loved one, bullying, prolonged illness or family violence.
  • Trauma or abuse from childhood. 
  • Family history of suicide or mental health disorders.
  • Exposure to suicide.
  • Access to guns or other lethal means.

Suicidal ideation is often linked to other mental health disorders. This includes major depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder. As many as 49.5% of youth may struggle with an untreated mental health issue. For this and many other reasons, parents need to understand the importance of mental health treatment for youth.

What to Do If Your Child Is Having Suicidal Thoughts

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. Keep these tips in mind when talking to your child:

  • It’s okay to ask direct questions about your child’s suicidal thoughts. 
  • 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. 
  • For Georgia residents, Behavioral Health Link (BHL) is a resource offering immediate help to people experiencing a mental health crisis anytime, day or night. The Georgia Crisis and Access Line is a toll-free number that connects people to the appropriate level of service. The number is (800) 715-4225.

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.

If your child has suicidal thoughts without active plans, an outpatient mental health facility or mental health provider should be contacted immediately. Hillside’s Virtual DBT Intensive Outpatient ProgramDay Treatment, and Intensive In-Home Program in Atlanta, GA, has clinicians skilled in working with children and adolescents who struggle with suicidal ideations.

Residential Treatment Centers for Depression

When life seems hopeless and the thoughts of suicide are chronic, residential treatment may offer your child the help they need to break free. 

Residential treatment at Hillside offers families a longer-term care option than inpatient crisis stabilization. We want to help families address any ongoing problems contributing to your child’s life-threatening behaviors, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Hillside is the leading residential mental health treatment center for children and families in Georgia. 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. Contact Hillside today to learn how we can support you and reduce the risk of suicide for your child.

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!