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7 warning signs a teen may be suicidal

June 21, 2019

With cyberbullying, the opioid epidemic and increased pressure on teens, suicide rates among young people have reached their highest point since 2000 in the US. Wherever you live, here are some signs to watch out for.

Girl holds her head in her hands
Image: picture-alliance/empics/D. Cheskin

Teen suicide rates have been rising in the US, especially among boys, a new study suggests.

Between 2007 and 2017, the suicide rate among 15 to 19 year olds rose from eight per 100,000 to 12 per 100,000. While suicide rates have surged among boys in the past few years, researchers want parents to know that they are increasing among both boys and girls.

"It's a very real threat," Oren Miron, lead author of the study and a research associate at Harvard Medical School, told DW. "We all like to think it's not going to happen to us."

Read more: Africa battles high rates of suicide, depression

Globally, 800,000 people die each year from suicide, according to the World Health Organization.

Most people who are suicidal don't want to die, professionals say, they just don't want to live the life they have. If you're a parent, friend, teacher or otherwise of teenagers, the following warning signs might indicate that they are suicidal:

1. Talking about it

Statements such as "I won't be a problem for you much longer" or "I'm going to kill myself" should be taken seriously, even if they are said in a joking manner. Such statements might not be verbalized, but instead, appear on a teen's social media posts or in other written forms.

"It's easier to talk about suicide without your parents knowing," explained Miron, referring to the often anonymous and hidden social media apps and platforms that teens use today. "Because so much of the life of a teenager is in the digital world, it's sometimes harder to see those signs."

Child's hand on laptop
The biggest predictor of whether someone will commit suicide is if they've expressed those thoughts beforeImage: picture-alliance

2. Self-destructive behavior

"Adolescents who self harm are very likely to attempt suicide," said Kristin Hadfield, assistant professor of psychology at Queen Mary University of London.

Harmful and destructive behaviors like self-harm are cause for concern, as is an increase in drug or alcohol use.

3. Withdrawing socially

Withdrawing from family and friends can be an indicator of suicidal thoughts.

"People are less likely to develop mental health problems if they have a lot of social support," explained Hadfield.

She says that it's important for parents to show an interest if they notice their children withdrawing and to tell them that they support and love them no matter what. Finding structural support like a therapist is also important, especially if a teen is unwilling to talk to their parents.

4. Trapped or hopeless feelings

Expressions of feeling hopeless or trapped in a situation may indicate suicidal thoughts in a teen. The majority of people who are suicidal do not actually want to die, according to the organization Samaritans. Rather, they often do not want the life they have. Teens might say things like, "I hate my life".

Ask your teen to talk about their feelings and listen to what they have to say.

"It's so critical to give the kids hope that high school is such a pressure cooker that doesn't really show what real life is about," said Miron. He says that emphasizing that once you get past those teenage years, life has many more options and opportunities, can help teens get through difficult times.

Silhouette of boy
Suicide occurrs four times as often among US boys aged 15 and 19, as it did among girlsImage: picture-alliance/Godong

5. A change in routine

Any noticeable change in routine may be a symptom of depression and signal to adults that something else is going on in a teen's life.

"Sleep is actually really robustly correlated with suicidal ideation," explained Hadfield.

She says that if a teen is only sleeping four to five hours a night, this may be an indicator of suicidal thoughts. If they are sleeping much longer than their normal sleep habits or seem to be constantly sleeping, this may be a sign of depression.

6. Giving away belongings

If a teen gives away prized possessions with no logical explanation as to why they are doing so, talk to them and seek help right away.

"That is a sign that they have made a plan," said Hadfield.

7. Personality changes, mood swings, anxiety and agitation

Though teenagers may be known for their mood swings, these are something to keep an eye on. A family history of mood disorders or suicidal behavior is a risk factor for teen suicide.

If your teen is displaying any of the warning signs listed above along with agitation, anxiety or a change in personality, talk to them about it.

"If you notice a major change in anything about what's going on with your child or your adolescent, then you should probe that further to understand," said Hadfield. "A supportive parent – somebody who shows unconditional love – is critical."

Proactively ask what is wrong and offer help, because teens may not come to you first. Don't wait.

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If you or someone you know is suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at www.befrienders.org.

Deutschland Samantha Baker Porträt DW
Sam Baker Journalist, Audio Presenter & Senior Producer@srmBAKER