How to Prevent Teen Suicide

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School Psychologist

Life is short. Too short for many of our youth. This article, then, is a tribute to Jessica Fashano and a wake up call to parents of children at high risk for attempting suicide. The third leading cause of death for adolescent and young adults between the ages of ten to twenty-four years is suicide.

As an update to this article that was originally written in 2011, this author has drawn from recent Center of Disease Control data (pre and post COVID-19).

Youth suicide attempts reached new heights during the peak COVID-19 pandemic. During the summer of 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  there was a 22.3 percent jump in emergency room trips attempted suicide of children ages 12 to 17 when compared to same time 2019. The attempts to commit suicide by adolescents and teens continued this alarming suicidal trend into the winter 2020. The CDC completed a follow up study during the academic year to show that hospital visits to the emergency room were up by almost 40 percent this winter when compared against past winter’s data. 

After a deeper dive into the suicide data, girls were found to have the highest probability of occurrence when compared to boys.  The rate of suicide attempts among young girls, between the ages of 12 to 17 rose by 51 percent between February and March of 2021 when compared against pre-pandemic 2019 data. Although there was an increase in attempts to take one’s life among same-aged boys, the increase was only slight (3 percent). 

The CDC reasoned that girls appeared to experience “more severe distress than has been identified in previous reports during the pandemic, reinforcing the need for increased attention to, and prevention for, this population.” Although the CDC did not elaborate upon the underlying risk factors associated with youth suicide attempts, they did indicate that teens and youth may “present higher risk because they were particular affected by lack of connectedness to schools, teachers and peers and anxiety about family health and economic problems, among other pandemic-related challenges.” 

I am gravely familiar with suicide attempts. As a school psychologist, I routinely conduct threat of self-harm and threats of individual or mass violence by students in a school setting. What can be said is that on a bad week, I assess three students. On a calm week, maybe none or just one. 

What I found in my personal empirical experience is that the students with presenting behaviors of self harm now, during school year 2021-2022, were in most cases aspirants to suicide last summer. It can’t be stressed enough that the threat of self harm leading up to eventual and untimely death is a very real threat and a constant danger during these chaotic times. Do it Now Foundation theorizes that there are:

Three main groups of young adults who try to kill themselves.
(1) Well adjusted, but coping with a stressful environmental crisis that could trigger a suicide attempt. Possible triggers: parents’ divorce, separation, death of a friend or close family member, new school, school failure, relationship break-up, or other major loss/
(2) Depressed or anxious. Young adults who feel stressed out, burnt out, or emotionally down have a higher risk of suicide. The risk climbs substantially when the individual has emotional problems, abuses drugs or uses substances to self medicate, or have experienced interpersonal loss.
(3) Impulsive, aggressive, or self-destructive. This is the highest risk group and are comprised of adolescents and young adults who have run away from home, are drug and alcohol abusers. As attempts by teens to take one’s own life is an impulsive act, suicide is highly associated with impulsivity in kids.

Parents, what you can do to prevent suicide in your family
(1) Maintain a stable environment within the home. Chaos, confusion do much to exacerbate feelings of self doubt, concern about one’s future and family.
(2) Live in the present moment. The presence of a calm, accepting parent does much to ameliorate a child’s negative and depressed mood.
(3) Stop the busyness. Incessant chatter, shuttling to soccer, basketball or cheerleading practice, worried discussions about work and the economy, unnecessary trips to the mall add to the sense of disconnection and disassociation with one’s parent.
(4) Refrain from minimizing your child’s problems or comparing them to one’s own.
(5) Love your children for who they are. To apply pressure to an open and/or closed wound lessens the chance of the rupture rapidly healing. The same with a perceived deficit, peculiarity or quirk. With acceptance, a little time and a lot of love, those minor quirks become eccentricities that add to your child’s character.
(6) Routinely call your child (if no longer living in the home) or schedule regular ‘check ins,’ to determine how your child’s day is progressing.
(7) Return to formal written letters, postal cards, holiday notes for sending send well-wishes and pictures. When away from home, young adults maintain ‘treasure or hope chests’, keepsake boxes and albums filled with family mementos and refer to them when lonely.
(8) Forgive. If your child disappoints you occasionally, or often, think to yourself, ‘Will this matter five years from now?’ If not, forget it and move on.
(9) Refrain from using your child as your best friend, therapist or confidant. Children have enough problems to bear and can not withstand shouldering the problems of others.
(10) Say I love you.

With so much focus on our jobs, career and socio-economic advancement; we fail to realize and live the mantra that ‘parenthood is the most important job we will ever have.’ Carpe diem.

Web Resources
Suicide statistics

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Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya at ishareknowledge dot com