Suicidal Thoughts in Children

Suicide and Teens

Suicidal Thoughts in Children

Suicide occurs when a person chooses to end his or her life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019 suicide was the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents ages 13 to 19 — and the leading cause of death among 13-year-olds. It is the 10th leading cause of deaths among all Americans.

Research shows that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are the greatest predictors of suicide.

These include passive thoughts of wanting to be dead, recurrent thoughts about ending one’s life, plans and behaviors that “rehearse” killing oneself, and suicide attempts. According to 2019 statistics from the CDC, 8.

9 percent of high school students surveyed attempted suicide and 18.8 percent of high school students “seriously considered” attempting suicide.

What are some potential causes of suicidal thoughts?

Research shows that up to 90 percent of people who have died by suicide suffered from a mental illness. Impulsivity and substance use, including alcohol and drugs, also are warning signs for elevated suicide risk.

It is important to remember that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not the natural consequence of serious life stresses.

People who experience a stressful life event may feel intense sadness or loss, anxiety, anger, or hopelessness, and may occasionally have the thought that they would be better off dead.

In most people, however, experiences of stressful life events do not trigger recurring thoughts of death, creation of a suicide plan, or intent to die. If any of these are present, it suggests that the person is suffering from depression or another psychiatric disorder and should seek professional treatment.

What are the signs of suicidal ideation?

The primary sign of suicidal thoughts is talking about suicide or doing something to try to harm oneself. If your child expresses suicidal thoughts or exhibits self-harming behaviors, seek professional help.

There are many warning signs and risk factors for suicide. The list below is not exhaustive, but is intended to provide insight into what factors might elevate a child or adolescent’s level of suicide risk.

This does not mean that if your child or adolescent has some of these risk factors, then s/he will automatically take his/her own life. Suicide risk takes into account many factors and needs to be continuously monitored by a mental health professional.

Remember that many factors combine to lead to a suicidal crisis and may include some of those that are listed below.

  • mental illness or psychiatric diagnosis
  • family history of suicide and/or exposure to suicide
  • family history of mental illness
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • losses
  • aggressive behavior or impulsivity
  • lack of social support or social isolation
  • poor coping skills
  • access to ways of harming oneself, guns, knives, etc.
  • difficulties in dealing with sexual orientation
  • physical illness
  • family disruptions (divorce or problems with the law)
  • traumatic event

Warning signs include:

  • preoccupation with death (e.g., recurring themes of death or self-destruction in artwork or written assignments
  • intense sadness and/or hopelessness
  • not caring about activities that used to matter
  • social withdrawal from family, friends, sports, or social activities
  • substance abuse
  • sleep disturbance (either not sleeping or staying awake all night)
  • giving away possessions
  • risky behavior
  • lack of energy
  • inability to think clearly or problems with concentration
  • declining school performance or increased absences from school
  • increased irritability
  • changes in appetite

How common is suicide?

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States. In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 47,000 suicide deaths were reported nationally — including about 2,600 teenagers.

How can I tell if my child is having suicidal thoughts?

You can start by asking your child if he or she is thinking about suicide. Be sure to ask them in clear, straight-forward language , “I’m worried about you. Have you been having thoughts about wanting to die or killing yourself?” People who attempt or complete suicide often exhibit a number of warning signs, either through what they say or by what they do.

The more warning signs a teenager exhibits, the higher the risk of completing suicide. If you think your child might be at risk for suicide, you should have him/her evaluated by a professional. You could call your primary care physician, your child’s therapist or psychiatrist, your local mobile crisis team, or visit the closest emergency department.

In an emergency, you should call 911.

What is the difference between suicide in children and suicide in adults?

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 10 and 19, and it is the 10th leading cause of death for all Americans. Firearms are the most frequently used method for death by suicide in the United States. The most frequent methods used by teenagers are by firearm or suffocation, which account for 84.5 percent of teen suicide deaths.

How is suicide risk assessed?

Suicide screenings may be done by health care providers such as pediatricians and nurses as part of standard health assessments.

Suicide risk is assessed by trained mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, clinical social workers, clinical psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and mental health counselors.

For rapid assessment of suicide risk, you should access care through your primary care physician, a local crisis team, or your local emergency department.

If my child is suicidal, what happens next?

The mental health professional who assesses your child should work with you and your child to acquire appropriate treatment. Treatment may include an inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, a partial hospitalization/day program, outpatient psychotherapy, home-based therapy, psychiatric medication, or some combination of the above.

How can I prevent suicide?

You can prevent suicide by being on the lookout for the warning signs mentioned above. You can also prevent suicide by asking about it. Studies show that people do not start thinking about suicide just because someone asks them about it.

If you suspect your child or adolescent is suicidal, tell them that you are worried and want to help them. Remember, sometimes children or adolescents who are thinking about suicide won’t tell you because they are worried how you will react. Your direct, non-judgmental questions can encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings with you.

Regardless of their response, if you suspect that the person may be suicidal, get them help immediately.

What is the long-term outlook for a child who is suicidal?

With the right help, a child who is suicidal can make a full recovery and live a fully productive life.

Where can I go to learn more?


Suicide Prevention, Children Ages 10 to 19 Years

Suicidal Thoughts in Children

As a parent or caregiver, you can play a major role in identifying if a young person is considering suicide.

What are suicidal behaviors?

  • Suicide occurs when someone purposely takes his or her own life.
  • A suicide attempt occurs when someone tries to take their own life but does not succeed. The person who survives may have serious injuries such as brain damage, broken bones, and organ failure. The survivor may also have depression or other mental health issues.
  • Suicidal ideation occurs when someone is thinking about taking their life.

Why do teens become suicidal?

There are many reasons why teens become suicidal. A suicide rarely has just one cause.

The teen years are an extremely stressful time for many children.Untreated mental illness, especially depression, is the leading cause for suicide.

Many people who die by suicide suffer from untreated or poorly treated depression resulting from difficult life experiences.

These life experiences might include family changes or illness, loss of family or friends, and feeling lonely, helpless, hopeless or depressed.

How do I know if my teen is at risk for suicide?

The following factors may increase the risk of suicide or attempted suicide. However, these risk factors do not always lead to a suicide.

  • Depression and other mental disorders, or a substance-abuse disorder (often combined with other mental disorders)
  • Feeling hopeless and worthless
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • Physical illness
  • Feeling detached and isolated from friends, peers and family
  • Family history of suicide, mental illness, or depression
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Access to a weapon in the home
  • Knowing someone with suicidal behavior, such as a family member, friend , or celebrity
  • Coping with being gay (homosexuality) in an unsupportive family, community, or hostile school environment
  • Incarceration (time in prison)

What factors can help protect my teen from becoming suicidal?

  • Effective medical treatment for mental and physical health problems and substance abuse
  • Strong support network of friends, family, peer groups or outside activities
  • Skills in solving problems, resolving conflicts and handling disputes without violence
  • Cultural and/or religious beliefs that discourage suicide

What are warning signs or behaviors that my teen may be thinking about suicide?

Teen suicide often occurs after a recent stressful life event in the family, with a friend, or at school. It is important for you to know the warning signs for suicide so you can get your teen the help she/he needs. A teen who is considering suicide might have one or more of these behaviors:

  • Suicidal ideation (thinking, writing, drawing or talking about suicide, death, dying or the afterlife)
  • Dependence on alcohol or drugs
  • Lack of a sense of purpose in life
  • Trouble focusing or thinking clearly
  • Increased withdrawal from family, friends, school, jobs and society. Poor grades may be a sign that the child is withdrawing at school.
  • Lack of interest in favorite activities
  • Reckless or risk-taking behaviors
  • Rash, bizarre or violent behavior
  • Changed eating or sleeping patterns (such as being unable to sleep or sleeping all the time)
  • Deep feelings of grief, uncontrolled anger, anxiety, shame, hopelessness, guilt or anxiety

What are signs that my teen may have a suicide plan?

  • Threatening to or talking about wanting to hurt or kill him/herself
  • Creating suicide notes
  • Expressing odd or troubling thoughts
  • Showing a dramatic change in personality or appearance
  • Throwing or giving away or promising to give away valued possessions to family members or friends
  • Talking about not being around in the future or «going away»
  • Searching for and trying to obtain weapons, pills, or other means ways to take their own life

How can I help a teen who is thinking or talking about suicide?

  • Do not ignore these warning signs.
  • Talk openly with your child and express concern, support, and love. If your child does not feel comfortable talking to you, suggest that s/he talk to another trusted adult such as a family member, a pastor, minister, rabbi or priest, a coach, a school counselor, or a family doctor.
  • Do not leave your teen alone.
  • Remove the objects your child might use to harm him/herself. Make sure your teen does not have access to guns, other possible weapons or medications.
  • Seek help immediately from:
    • Your child's doctor;
    • Mental health services (Ask your doctor for a referral.);
    • The nearest emergency room;
    • Emergency services (911); and/or
    • A suicide hotline.

Timothy's Law requires that health insurance providers provide comparable (similar) coverage for mental illnesses as they provide for other medical care. Timothy's Law ensures that adults and children with mental illness receive the same health care coverage benefits as those provided for physical ailments.

Only people covered by group health insurance or a school blanket health insurance policy are eligible for the mental health benefits required by Timothy's Law.

Group health insurance is insurance that you obtain through an employer or through an association, such as a chamber of commerce.

A school blanket health insurance policy covers students enrolled in a college or university who purchase their insurance through the school.

Where can I find more information?


Suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts: teenagers

Suicidal Thoughts in Children

Suicidal thoughts are thoughts about killing yourself.

Suicidal thoughts can be a sign of temporary stress and the feeling that things are just too hard and you’ve run options. They might last only a few seconds.

But suicidal thoughts can also be a sign of suicidal intent, making suicide plans or a suicide attempt.

Suicidal thoughts can come suddenly, or they might follow a stressful time. Suicidal thoughts can take over a person’s thinking.

These thoughts aren’t uncommon. Around half of young people have had suicidal thoughts at some time.

Teenagers at risk of suicide attempts

Young people might be at risk of suicide attempts if they:

  • have previously attempted suicide or know someone who has suicided
  • have or have had mental illness or eating disorders or have been recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital or service
  • have a family history of suicide, mental illness and/or substance misuse
  • misuse alcohol and other drugs or have a history of drug abuse
  • engage in self-harming behaviour
  • have lost a parent during childhood, are going through family conflict, or lack family support
  • are socially isolated, have experienced abuse or bullying, or are feeling rejected after a relationship breakdown
  • are exploring their gender or sexuality – for example, if they feel their gender is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, or if they’re lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • have physical illness, chronic pain, disability or terminal illness.

Signs that teenagers might be at risk of a suicide attempt

Here are some warning signs that your child is feeling suicidal or thinking about a suicide attempt.

Suicide signs
You need to take urgent action if your child is:

  • talking about suicide – for example, saying things ‘I’m going to kill myself’, ‘I wish I was dead’, ‘I wish I hadn’t been born’, ‘I feel giving up’, ‘People would be better off if I wasn’t here’ or ‘I just want to go to sleep’
  • talking about feeling hopeless or despairing, either in person or online – for example, in blogs or social media
  • talking a lot about death or dying, or drawing or writing poetry, songs or stories about death or dying
  • saying goodbye to people as if expecting not to see them again, or giving away stuff for no reason
  • visiting known suicide locations
  • writing suicide notes, or collecting things that could be used for suicide – for example, pills, drugs, sharp blades, rope, knives or other weapons.

Behaviour changes
You need to be concerned if your child is:

  • not interested in social activities, or spending less time with friends and more time alone
  • showing a rapid drop in school performance
  • having a lot of trouble sleeping or waking up later than usual
  • running away
  • getting into trouble with the police
  • using alcohol and other drugs more
  • showing signs of losing touch with reality (psychosis) – for example, hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there.

Emotional changes
You need to be concerned if your child:

  • seems very anxious, angry, confused or agitated
  • has mood swings, rages or periods of aggression that are character, or is suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
  • seems not to care about other people, or has little or no reaction to happy or unpleasant events.

Some teenagers don’t show any signs and might attempt suicide without any warning. Even highly experienced mental health professionals can’t always know that a person is having suicidal thoughts. But it’s very rare for a person who is asked sensitively about symptoms to completely deny being suicidal.

If your child tells you they want to hurt themselves or want to die, seek professional help. Lifeline services include a 24-hour phone counselling service for crisis support. Call Lifeline on 131 114 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or encourage your child to call. If your child is willing to go, take them to the emergency department at your nearest hospital.

Asking teenagers about suicidal thoughts

If you’re worried that your child is thinking about suicide, it’s best to ask your child directly.

By asking direct questions about your child’s suicidal thoughts and feelings, you’re giving your child the chance to talk about them. You’re also helping your child feel less alone at a time when they might feel isolated.

It might be hard for you to hear about your child’s feelings, but it’s important to listen and let your child do most of the talking. Let your child know that you understand how hard it is for them to talk about their feelings.

Here are some questions you could ask:

  • ‘Have you thought about not being here anymore?’
  • ‘Are you thinking about suicide or ending your life?’
  • ‘Have you thought about how you would do it?’
  • ‘Do you know when you would do it?’

If your child says ‘yes’ to any of the questions above, you should seek immediate help by calling Lifeline on 131 114 or emergency services on 000. You can also take your child to the local hospital emergency department.

Be aware that your child might find it hard to talk about suicide. Or your child might not be able to talk about their feelings or symptoms because of mental illness. If your child has depression or psychosis, it might be very hard for your child to think that they’re worth helping.

Suicidal thoughts: what to do and what not to do

What to do
If your child is having suicidal thoughts, take the following steps:

  • Stay with your child or get someone else to stay with them. Don’t leave your child alone.
  • Remove anything that might cause harm, sharp objects, drugs, rope, razors, guns or medications. This also includes removing access to a car.
  • Tell your child that you care and want to help. Let your child know that if you think their life is in danger, you will get help from a professional. You won’t keep your child’s suicidal thoughts and feelings secret.
  • Ask your child to promise to tell you – or a trusted adult, friend, psychologist, youth worker, teacher, GP or helpline Lifeline – if they have suicidal thoughts again.

What not to do
It’s not helpful to say things that are patronising, opinionated, blaming or judgmental. This can shut down communication and stop your child from wanting to get help.

Here are some unhelpful statements to avoid:

  • ‘But you have everything to live for.’
  • ‘Things could be worse.’
  • ‘There are people worse off than you.’
  • ‘We all feel down sometimes.’
  • ‘You’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep.’
  • ‘What can I do to make you feel better?’

Getting help for teenagers with suicidal thoughts

If your child has suicidal thoughts, your child needs professional help. The support you give your child isn’t a substitute for help from qualified mental health professionals.

You can start by arranging a mental health assessment for your child with a GP, counsellor or mental health professional. If your child has a mental health issue, treatment will give your child the best chance of recovery.

You can support your child through this by making phone calls, looking into treatment options, offering to arrange your child’s mental health appointments and going to appointments with them.

People who are suicidal can feel as if there’s no hope and that they’ve run options. It will help to reassure your child that things will change and get better with the right treatment.

Things that protect teenagers from suicidal thinking

There are things that can help protect young people against suicide. These include:

Looking after yourself

It’s good for you to look after yourself, especially your physical and emotional wellbeing. This can help you stay calm and consistent when things get tough, which is good for your child too.

Here are a few ways that you can look after your own health and wellbeing:

  • Seek professional help for yourself if you’re distressed, or even if you just want to talk about the effect of your child’s experience on you. Your GP, a counsellor, psychologist, Lifeline or parenting helpline are good places to start.
  • It will be hard to leave your child by themselves. Ask for help from family, friends or members of your support network. You can ask them to give you a call or to look after your other children.
  • If possible, try to do something enjoyable each week, either by yourself or with friends and family.


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