How Can You Tell If Your Teenager Is Suicidal?

The death of the 16-year-old son of a prominent British baronet has again focused attention on the tragic cost of youth suicides.

The international press reported last week that Alexander Codrington, the eldest son of Sir Christopher Codrington, apparently shot himself while on the telephone to police after reportedly being upset about a break-up with his girlfriend.

In Britain, more than 15 people a day take their own lives (Sydney Morning Herald).

In Australia over 2100 Australians kill themselves each year (Australian Bureau of Statistics), which equates to nearly 1 suicide every 4 hours. The number of suicide attempts in Australia is approximately 65,000 annually.

Males made up 78% of the more than 2100 confirmed suicides in Australia in 2008.

So serious has the problem become in Australia that earlier this year the Australian government held a Senate inquiry into the problem of suicide.

Suicide Amongst Teenagers

After car accidents, suicide is the most common cause of death among Australian young people. It is estimated that 12% of adolescents think about suicide, 9% make a suicide plan, 4% make a suicide attempt and 1% make an attempt that requires treatment. More than 1 in 4 of all male deaths among 15 to 24 year olds were due to suicide in 2008 (ABS, 2010).

In a recent survey about what issues were most concerning to teenagers, suicide ranked second behind drug use.

There is no way to predict if a person might become suicidal. Suicide is not confined to certain personality types, levels of intelligence, or socio-economic class.

What we do know is that majority of young people who commit suicide suffer from depression. Depression is a mental disorder associated with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration (World Health Organisation).  For more information on depression in teenagers refer to  this earlier series of posts.

Other important aspects to remember about teenagers and suicide:

  • Suicide is about the inability to get through the pain of the present. Suicidal teens may be able to talk about the future and imagine good things to come, however it is the hopelessness of their current circumstances that makes suicide attractive. Hope for the future does not always get people through the present.
  • Teenagers will often have illogical assumptions about death.  For instance it is common for teens to imagine themselves watching their own funeral and feeling moved when observing how sad their friends and family are, or listening to the good things they all have to say. These fantasies tap into a teenager’s need for acceptance and approval.  Such thoughts can be very convincing and attractive to a teenager.
  • Teens get caught up in trends.  When a teenager at school or in the local neighbourhood commits suicide it can spark a wave of suicide attempts.  This is caused in part by the previous point, teen’s illogical assumptions about death.  A teen observes all the grief and attention the suicide victim gets and craves it for themself. This is why it is essential adults do not sensationalise suicide.
  • Teenagers who attempt suicide are often dismissed as attention seeking.  Teenagers who attempt suicide aren’t just seeking attention, they actually need attention.

When is A Teenager at Risk

While depression and suicide do not respect any demographic differences, there are some patterns that emerge amongst teenage suicide victims that are worth noting.

Groups of teens that may figure more highly in the at risk of suicide category include:

  • Aggressive, impulsive males (guys are also much more successful when attempting suicide, because their attempts are more likely to be violent and effective.)
  • Socially isolated ‘loners’.
  • High-achievers who have perfectionist personalities.

Suicide and depression are not caused by just a single event in a person’s life. They are usually caused by a combination of multiple factors, including biological, environmental, psychological, and relational issues.

While the causes may be complex and multifaceted, there are events that can trigger certain tendencies. The following stress factors may make a young person more vulnerable to suicide risk:

  • The loss of an important person through death or separation.
  • Breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
  • Recent suicide of a friend or relative.
  • Trouble with school or the police.
  • Being a victim of sexual or other abuse (or memories of).
  • Severe family conflict or domestic violence.

Signs to Watch For

It is not always possible to prevent suicide.  Nor is it always possible to know if someone is contemplating it. However there are warning signs that can assist in early intervention.  These warning signs include:

  • Talking about suicide, or killing oneself, even in a joking manner.
  • Statements about hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness.
  • Preoccupation with death including talking, writing, or drawing about it.
  • Sudden happy mood after a long period of sadness or anger. Having made a decision to die they may feel as though they can now stop worrying about their problems and experience a genuine sense of peace of relief.
  • Loss of interest in things one used to care about.
  • Noted attempts at visiting or calling people one cares about usually to tell them how they feel about them or how grateful they are.
  • Setting one’s affairs in order: returning borrowed items, repaying debts etc.
  • Giving things away, particularly things of high personal value and significance.

Helpful Links

Black Dog Institute

Beyond Blue

Reach Out

The Anika Foundation

Image by h.koppdelaney

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Showing 3 comments
  • Laura

    Sometimes there are no warning signs. My daughter attempted suicide, but had not shown any of the warning signs.

    My story:

  • Family Matters

    A relative of mine also lost her youngest son to suicide. One day, he took his father’s gun and killed himself, leaving nothing behind to explain. That was very hard on everyone who loved him and wanted him to be happy.

    Chris, your post begs the question, “What can we do to prevent it?” I believe schools must focus on emotional intelligence more than they do on academic results and the government should focus on prevention instead of anti-depressants.

    Suicide rates are higher in some places and for good reasons, and they are higher in some situations. Parents should be made fully aware of this and get help themselves in helping to open up their kids.

  • Chris

    Thanks Ronnit for your input. Guess it does beg the question of prevention. Knowing what to look for is part of the answer. Knowing what to do is the next step. having the courage to talk and ask if you suspect something is wrong is part of it.

    I agree that emotional intelligence, and would add resilience development, should be taught. Not though if school should carry that burden or parents?

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