By Rachel Osborn, LICSW, MSW, Senior Clinical Manager of School Based Mental Health
When a young person has a headache or stomachache, they typically don’t hesitate to let someone know they are in distress and need help. Unfortunately, youth are much less likely to recognize their mental health pains and seek the support they need. This reluctance, often stemming from the stigma around mental health issues, can become a matter of life and death when it comes to suicide.
Youth may not ask for support for a variety of reasons, including embarrassment, the perception that adults are too busy or disconnected to help, unsuccessful attempts to ask for help in the past, or simply not knowing where to go.
Youth Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs
The challenges youth face on a daily basis, such as changes in peer groups, identity formation, and the unrelenting pressure to fit in, leads many teens to feel isolated and misunderstood. Whereas many youth can navigate these stressors with ease, others may struggle to be resilient and may be at higher risk for suicidal thinking and behavior.
Factors that can increase a youth’s risk for suicide:
- Social isolation and withdrawal
- Minimal family support
- Being a victim of bullying
- Previous suicide attempts
- Depressive symptoms
- Family history of suicide
- Alcohol and/or drug use
- Identifying as LGBTQ (making them 3 times more likely to contemplate suicide than heterosexual youth)
- Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others.
Common warning signs of youth suicide:
- Depression, which is often correlated with suicide, but not always
- Talking about or referencing suicide. This may be direct (“I’m going to kill myself,” “I want to die”) or indirect (“I’m done, I’m over it all”), and it may be done verbally, in writing, in artwork, over text, or through social media postings
- Researching suicide methods
- Preoccupation with death and dying
- Giving away possessions, saying goodbyes to others, writing goodbye letters, and asking others what it would be like if they were gone
- Abrupt and extreme changes in demeanor, clothing, and appearance
Please note – not all youth feeling suicidal will display these behaviors, and displaying these behaviors does not necessarily mean a youth is suicidal. When concerned, it is always best to break the silence and ask directly, and/or refer them immediately to a mental health professional. Never promise to keep a secret if it means jeopardizing their safety. Tell them you care about them deeply and want to make sure they are okay.
Take Action to Prevent Youth Suicide
Youth suicide is preventable, and it starts by creating connections. We all have a role to play as helping professionals, educators, community members, or family members, and we must reinforce the same message to each young person whose lives we touch: you matter, you are worthwhile, things can get better, and there are people who care.
For Schools: The single best prevention strategy is to cultivate safe, trusting relationships between students and adults. All school personnel should be able to identify and respond to suicide warning signs. Reinforce that mental health professionals are available, and make asking for emotional support as normal as asking for academic support. Students should also know where to go if they are concerned about a peer.
Resources for School Communities:
- K-12 Toolkit for School Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention
- Suicide Prevention Toolkit for High Schools
- Toolkit for School Communities after a Suicide
For Parents and Caregivers: Make it routine to ask about your child’s emotional well-being. Stay informed of what media your child is exposed to. Be familiar with your child’s social media presence and web browsing habits, and strive to make this as normal and safe of a conversation topic as possible. If you are ever concerned about your child’s emotional state, know where you can seek help. Your child’s doctor or school counselor can always point you in the right direction.
Resource for Parents:
For Youth: Suicide is a permanent response to a temporary problem, and while problems eventually go away, suicide does not. Most counselors are incredibly caring, trustworthy, and non-judgmental. Do not hesitate to ask for help – and keep asking until you get the support you need.
Resources for Youth:
- Suicide Prevention Resources for Teens
- The Trevor Project “Get Help Now” for LGBTQ youth
- Mary’s Center Teen Project Instagram
For Community Members: Nobody is responsible for another individual’s suicide. However, we all have a role in suicide prevention. Whether you are a healthcare provider, educator, police officer, family member, or you interact with young people in any capacity, always assume that individuals are experiencing more than you can see on the surface. If you are ever concerned about anyone’s well-being – the best thing you can do is to simply reach out and ask, or connect them to someone who is comfortable doing so.
The Mary’s Center School Based Mental Health program served nearly 1,500 young people and their families this school year with mental health services.
If you would like to connect with Mary’s Center Mental Health Services, please call 844-796-2797.
Resources for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis or contemplating suicide:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text “START” to 741741
DC Department of Behavioral Health Access Helpline 24/7 Hotline
If anyone is in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others, call 911