Teen Suicidal Thoughts: Signs, Causes, Prevention, and Seeking Help

Teenage suicidal thoughts refer to the contemplation of ending one’s own life by individuals in their teenage years. A 2022 study by Hink, A. B., “Adolescent Suicide—Understanding Unique Risks and Opportunities for Trauma Centers to Recognize, Intervene, and Prevent a Leading Cause of Death” shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens in the US

Teen suicide thoughts are caused by mental health disorders (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder), social (abuse, domestic violence), and biological factors (genes).

Symptoms of a suicidal teenager include changes in behavior (withdrawal, change in sleep patterns), emotional signs (sadness, irritability), and verbal cues (preoccupation with death).

Teen self-harm and teen suicide have similarities and differences. They are similar because both involve underlying mental problems. But they are different as self-harm is usually a coping mechanism with no intention to die, unlike suicide.

Preventing teen suicide requires fostering open communication, raising awareness of suicidal thoughts, how to identify the symptoms and where to seek help, and develop coping mechanisms.

To help a suicidal teenager, you need to create a safe, open environment for communication, seek professional assistance, and reach out to crisis intervention and emergency resources.

What is Teen Suicidal Thoughts?

teen suicidal thoughts

Teen suicidal thoughts involve thinking of taking one’s life by a person in their teenage. These thoughts stem from a complex interplay of various factors, including but not limited to mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, as well as environmental stressors such as bullying, academic pressure, or family conflicts.

Teenagers experiencing suicidal thoughts often feel overwhelmed and hopeless, believing that death is the only solution to their problems. They experience a sense of isolation in the belief that no one understands their pain or that they are a burden to others.

According to a 2021 “Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) Data Summary & Trends Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 20% of teens have seriously considered suicide. The CDC report further indicates that an increasing number of teens are experiencing persistent feelings of hopelessness, and sadness.

What Are The Causes and Risk Factors of Teen Suicidal Thoughts?

causes and risk factors of teen suicidal thoughts

Teen suicide thoughts are caused by mental health disorders (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder), social (abuse, domestic violence), and biological factors (genes). 

1. Mental health disorders

According to the 2022 study by Hink, mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse significantly increase the risk of suicidal thoughts among teens. These disorders often distort one’s perception of reality and make it difficult to cope with stressors.

2. Social Factors

The 2021 YRBS report showed that traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, bullying, domestic violence, parental divorce, or the death of a loved one trigger suicidal thoughts in teenagers. These events lead to feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and worthlessness.

3. Biological Factors

Genetic issues play a significant role in the development of mental health disorders and suicidal behavior. Teens with a family history of mental illness or suicide are at a higher risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts themselves. Additionally, Imbalances in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine affect mood regulation and increase the risk of suicidal ideation.

What are the Myths and Misconceptions About Teenage Suicidal Thoughts?

Myths and misconceptions about teenage suicidal thoughts often hinder understanding and appropriate intervention. One common myth is that talking about suicide gives teens the suicide idea. In reality, open dialogue can provide support and possibly prevent suicidal behavior. 

Another misconception is that only teens with a history of mental illness are at risk, while in truth, suicidal thoughts affect anyone. Additionally, some believe that suicide attempts are just cries for attention. However, they are serious indicators of distress and should never be ignored. Understanding these myths is crucial for effectively supporting teenagers dealing with suicidal thoughts.

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Teen Suicidal Thoughts?

signs and symptoms of teen suicidal thoughts

Symptoms of a suicidal teenager include changes in behavior (withdrawal, change in sleep patterns), emotional signs (sadness, irritability), and verbal cues (preoccupation with death). According to a report “ ‘Youth Warning Signs”, from the Office of Suicide Prevention, State of Nevada, suicide is rarely a last-minute decision. Rather, they are warning signs and cues long before the teenager decides to end their life. Unfortunately, those signs and symptoms are usually ignored until it is too late. Common indicators that show a teenager is experiencing suicidal thoughts include:

Behavioral Signs of Teen Suicidal Thoughts

  1. Withdrawal: Teenagers withdraw from friends, family, and activities they once enjoyed. They isolate themselves and avoid social interactions.
  1. Changes in Sleep Patterns: Suicidal teenagers usually experience insomnia or, conversely, sleep excessively.
  1. Changes in Appetite: Significant changes in eating habits, such as overeating or undereating, are indicators of emotional distress.

Emotional Signs of Teen Suicidal Thoughts

  1. Persistent Sadness: Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or despair that persist for an extended period indicate a teenager is struggling with suicidal thoughts.
  1. Irritability: Teenagers experiencing suicidal thoughts become easily agitated, irritable, or angry.
  1. Loss of Interest: A loss of interest in activities, hobbies, or relationships that once brought joy or fulfillment can be a sign of suicidal ideation.

Verbal Signs of Teen Suicidal Thoughts

  1. Verbal Cues: Suicidal teens often make statements indicating a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, or feeling like a burden to others.
  1. Preoccupation with Death: Expressing thoughts or fantasies about death, dying, or suicide is a clear indication of emotional distress. According to a 2023 study by Lee, S., et al, “Can We Notice the Suicidal Warning Signs of Adolescents With Different Psychometric Profiles Before Their Death?: Analysis of Teachers’ Reports”, obsession with death and completion of death-related documents including wills is a common sign of a suicidal teen.

What Are the Similarities and Differences Between Teen Self-Harm and Teen Suicide?

Teen self-harm and teen suicide are similar as they both involve underlying mental problems and in some instances, they co-occur. According to the article “Self-harm in teenagers” from Reach Out Australia, self-harm or self-injury refers to a person harming their body by cutting, pricking, or burning without suicidal intent. The two conditions are different as self-harm is usually a coping mechanism without the intention to die, unlike suicide.

Similarities Between Teen Self Harm and Teen Suicide

  1. Mental Health Issues: Both self-harm and suicide are linked to underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma.
  1. Coping Mechanisms: Both self-harm and suicide are maladaptive coping mechanisms, ways for teens to deal with overwhelming emotions or situations.
  1. Risk Factors: Similar risk factors include experiences of trauma, abuse, bullying, or feelings of isolation.

Differences Between Teen Self Harm and Teen Suicide

  1. Intent: Self-harm is a way to cope with emotional pain without the intent to die, while suicide involves the intent to end one’s life.
  1. Outcome: Self-harm typically results in non-fatal injuries, while suicide results in death.
  1. Communication: Teens who self-harm use it as a way to communicate distress, while those considering suicide usually keep their intentions hidden.
  1. Frequency and Severity: While both are serious, self-harm incidents are more frequent and less severe than suicide attempts.

What Are The Statistics For Teen Suicide in The United States?

Teen suicide is a significant public health concern in the United States. According to a 2024 report “Facts About Suicide”, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10 to 24. In 2019, there were 6,211 suicides among this age group, with rates increasing steadily over the past decade.

A 2022 study by Garnett MF., et al, published on the National Center for Health Statistics website showed that the suicide rates among adolescents and young adults increased by 30 percent from 10.4 per 100,000 in 2000 to 13.5 in 2020. Additionally, there are significant demographic disparities in suicide rates. For instance, in 2019, the suicide rate for males aged 15 to 19 was nearly four times higher than that of females in the same age group.

How Do You Prevent Teen Suicidal Thoughts?

Preventing teen suicide requires fostering open communication, raising awareness of suicidal thoughts, how to identify the symptoms and where to seek help, and develop coping mechanisms. According to a 2024 article “ Preventing Suicide”, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is preventable. In addition, prevention requires techniques from all levels of society. Taking a multi-faceted approach that involves the individual, their family, schools, and the community is critical as suicide is a complex problem. Strategies for preventing teen suicide include:

 1. Foster Open Communication

Create a safe and supportive environment where teenagers feel comfortable discussing their feelings and concerns. Be attentive and non-judgmental when a teenager wants to talk. Let them know you are there to listen and support them.

    2. Educate and Raise Awareness

    Educate teenagers, parents, teachers, and other community members about the signs of suicidal thoughts and how to seek help. Promote open discussions about mental health to reduce stigma and encourage help-seeking behavior.

      3. Develop Coping Skills

      Help teenagers develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress, anxiety, and other emotional challenges.Encourage activities that promote resilience and mental well-being, such as exercise, mindfulness, and creative expression.

        4. Limit Access to Lethal Means

        Safeguard access to firearms, medications, and other lethal means that could be used in a suicide attempt. Be aware of teenagers’ online activities and limit access to websites that promote self-harm or suicide.

          How Do You Seek Help for Teen Suicidal Thoughts?

          To help a suicidal teenager, you need to establish a safe, open environment for communication, seek professional assistance, and reach out to crisis intervention and emergency resources.

          1. Encourage open communication

          Create a safe and supportive environment where teenagers feel comfortable discussing their feelings and concerns. Listen attentively and without judgment when a teenager wants to talk. Let them know you are there to listen and support them.

            2. Professional help and support

            Encourage teenagers to seek professional help from therapists, counselors, or mental health professionals who specialize in working with adolescents. According to a 2012 study by Wharff EA. et al, “Family-based Crisis Intervention with suicidal adolescents in the emergency room: A pilot study”, published in the Social Work journal, Family-Based Crisis Intervention (FBCI), is highly effective in reducing suicidal ideations in teens.

            In some cases, medication is necessary to manage underlying mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. A 2014 study by Singer, J. B., shows that some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Fluoxetine help to reduce depressive symptoms.

              3. Crisis intervention and emergency resources

              Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7. The service is free, confidential, and available to anyone in emotional distress. Text “HELLO” to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor via text message. Make a list of friends, family members, or other supportive individuals you can contact when you are feeling overwhelmed.

                Can Depression Lead to Teen Suicide?

                Yes, depression is likely to lead to teen suicide. Depression is a serious mental health condition that causes feelings of hopelessness, despair, and worthlessness. When these feelings become overwhelming and untreated, they lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors, especially among teenagers who struggle to cope. According to a 2015 study by Orsolini, L., “Understanding the Complex of Suicide in Depression: From Research to Clinics”, published in the Psychiatry Investigation Journal, major depressive disorder (MDD) is a high-risk cause of suicide.

                What Should I Do If I Think My Teen Friend Is Experiencing Suicidal Thoughts?

                If you believe a friend is experiencing suicidal thoughts, it’s essential to take their concerns seriously and offer your support. Encourage your friend to talk about how they feel and let them know you are there for them. Encourage them to seek help from a trusted adult, therapist, or mental health professional. You should also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7. The service is free, confidential, and available to anyone in emotional distress.

                What Should I Do If I’m Afraid To Talk To Someone About My Suicidal Thoughts?

                If you are afraid to talk to someone about your suicidal thoughts, it is essential to remember that you are not alone, and there are people who care about you and want to help. Consider reaching out to a helpline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Crisis Text Line, where you can talk to a trained crisis counselor anonymously.

                How does aggression in teens relate to suicidal thoughts, and what prevention strategies are effective?

                Aggression in teens can be both a symptom and a contributing factor to suicidal thoughts. Teens who experience intense anger and aggression may feel misunderstood, isolated, and frustrated, leading to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation. Additionally, aggressive behavior can strain relationships with family and peers, further exacerbating emotional distress. Effective prevention strategies include teaching emotional regulation skills, providing access to counseling and mental health services, and creating supportive environments at home and school. Programs that promote conflict resolution, empathy, and communication can also help reduce aggression and its impact on mental health.

                What are the signs that a teen might be experiencing both phobias and suicidal thoughts, and how should they be addressed?

                Signs that a teen might be experiencing both phobias and suicidal thoughts include severe anxiety in specific situations, avoidance of certain places or activities, withdrawal from friends and family, changes in mood or behavior, and expressions of hopelessness or despair. It is crucial to address these signs promptly by seeking help from mental health professionals who can provide comprehensive assessments and tailored treatment plans. Parents and caregivers should create a safe and open environment for teens to express their feelings and fears. Schools can also play a vital role by offering counseling services and promoting mental health awareness. Early intervention and ongoing support are key to helping teens manage their phobias and reducing the risk of suicide.

                What To Do If Your Teenager Is Self-Harming?

                 If your teen is self-harming, you need to talk to them calmly, with an open mind, and without losing your temper. Listen to the teen about their reason for self-harm and let them know that you care. According to Reach Out Australia, you also need to get rid of self-harming items or help them seek professional help from medical practitioners or psychotherapists.

                Do People Threaten Suicide To Get Attention?

                 No, according to “The Myths & Facts of Youth Suicide “ from the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health (DPBH) Office of Suicide Prevention, all suicide attempts and threats should be as if the person intends to die.  

                Author: Shantel Sullivan Ed.D., LCSW
                Dr. Shantel Sullivan, Ed.D., LCSW, serves as the CEO of Bright Path with a rich background in residential adolescent treatment, adult outpatient services, and academia, leveraging over a decade of licensed social work experience in New York and North Carolina. Her academic credentials include a BA in Sociology, an MSW and a graduate certificate in addictions counseling from the University of New England, culminating in a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership focused on transformational leadership. Beyond her clinical expertise, Dr. Sullivan contributes to the field as a national speaker, educator, and editor of the Bright Path Teen Mental Health Blog, committed to enhancing access to evidence-based mental health care for adolescents and their families.
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