Suicidal Thoughts in Our Young People

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24.1

We are in the most technologically advanced society we’ve ever been in, with information and communication at our fingertips. With this comes around-the-clock access to each other like we’ve never had before. In previous generations, teens didn’t have an instant notification system of when things were happening – of when they are being excluded. They didn’t have instant access to each other during the period of their lives when emotions are the messiest or room to voice their immediate thoughts and reactions without having to take time and space to consider them. They didn’t have the opportunity to send messages at 2:00 AM, or the ability to create shadow accounts from a variety of social media platforms to torment each other from multiple angles. They didn’t have the social media feeds of everyone’s best moments at their fingertips that they then compared to their worst moments. They didn’t have the nearly unending access to unsupervised and unrestricted conversations with each other. In today’s society, peer communication largely goes unchecked and happens behind the scenes. Teens are “on” all the time. This has created a breeding ground for insecurity, self-doubt, bullying, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in our young people.

Suicide is generally a taboo topic that we don’t talk about. There is pervasive fear, especially in adolescence, about not fitting in, feeling different, or feeling less than. Young people want to be liked and included, and admitting that they have thoughts of suicide is a surefire way to be excluded. It incites fear. It incites concern that peers will “catch it.” It incites the “other” complex that teens try to avoid at all costs. And yet nearly 1 in 5 teens have thought seriously about ending their life.2 They are not alone in their struggles. Not talking about suicide is literally killing people.

But there is hope. Everyone can play a role in preventing suicide. Research has found that asking about suicide does not induce or exacerbate any thoughts. In fact, asking about it may reduce suicidal thoughts.3 It provides the opening for someone who is thinking about suicide to talk about their thoughts and get them out of their head, providing relief.

Everyone can listen for the warning signs that may raise a red flag that suicidal thoughts may be present. Phrases such as “I feel hopeless” or “I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up” are indications that someone may be thinking about ending their life. If someone talks about feeling stuck or trapped, or if they increase substance use or reckless behavior, it is worth asking them if they are having thoughts of suicide. Extreme changes in behavior, especially in sleeping and eating, may also be an indication that psychological pain is present. This could present as someone who was once happy and engaged in life who now spends most of their time in bed, unable or unwilling to complete even basic daily tasks. On the contrary, someone who has moved past thinking about suicide and has made the decision to carry out their plan may move from feeling depressed or agitated to calm and even euphoric, a phenomenon known as suicide euphoria. Any significant changes may be cause for concern and both extremes warrant a conversation to determine if suicide may be on the table.

Other risk factors to be cognizant of that may be especially prominent in our young people are a personal or family history of depression; substance use; loss of a parent to divorce or death, especially if the death was by suicide; physical and/or sexual abuse; lack of a support network; feelings of isolation; prior suicide attempt/s; and bullying. Folks with any of these experiences are at an increased risk of dying by suicide and may need extra support as they navigate life’s challenges.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some additional information for our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ populations. Black and brown teens (all genders) are more likely than their white peers to report suicide attempts4 and LGBTQ+ young people who come from families that reject or do not accept them are over eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them.5 Forty percent of LGBTQ+ folks seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered suicide.5

But just one supportive adult cuts the chance an LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide by 40%.5 Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all or most people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected5 and 46% of LGBTQ+ youth reported they wanted psychological or emotional counseling from a mental health professional 5 – they’re reaching out and wanting to access help.

There is training available for lay people – family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. – as well as more advanced training for professionals who may work with folks considering suicide. Mental Health First Aid is available to everyone, as is Talk Saves Lives. Both of these trainings are designed to equip families, friends, loved ones, and support people with basic skills to recognize signs of suicide and with the right pathways to help their loved ones. ASIST and CALM are trainings geared toward early professionals to equip them with early intervention skills to help the suicidal folks they may work with. Getting trained in the basics of recognizing suicide risk could be the difference between life and death for one of your loved ones.

We all play a role in suicide prevention. American youth are living in a society that prizes independence and achievement, let’s counter that by leaning into our young people, by supporting them through their challenging moments, and by walking with them in their struggles. Suicide is most often an attempt to end one’s intense, psychological pain. Let’s be the helping hand our young people need to get back on their feet and live a life worth living.

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If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can’t feel it—and you are worth your life.

You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don’t like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

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REFERENCES

1 Drapeau, C. W., & McIntosh, J. L. (for the American Association of Suicidology). (2020). U.S.A. suicide: 2018 Official final data. Washington, DC: American Association of Suicidology, dated February 12, 2020, downloaded from http://www.suicidology.org.

 2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018).

High school Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System [data tool]. Retrieved from

https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/suicidal-teens

3 Dazzi T, Gribble R, Wessely S, Fear NT. Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce

suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychol Med 2014;44:3,361-3

4 Lindsey, M., Sheftall, A., Xiao, Y., & Joe, S. (2019, November 01). Trends of Suicidal Behaviors

Among High School Students in the United States: 1991–2017. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/144/5/e20191187

5 James, Se.E., Herman, J.L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the

2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

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