What Everyone Should Know About Teen Suicide Prevention

My Own Experience with Suicide

This is a topic I’ve always been concerned about, but have never felt well-prepared to handle. A few years ago, one of my former young women attempted suicide and her mom reached out to me for help. I didn’t do anything all that grand. I simply would take her for a day or part of the day here and there. That way her mom could get a break. I’ve continued to have opportunities to help people with mental health issues. A couple of months ago, I learned that I could be trained in mental health first aid. I signed up for a class, hoping I could find more ways to help people around me. I learned a great deal of helpful information. Some I will share in this post.

Know the Signs

Teenagers are an interesting group when it comes to mental health warning signs. They’re going through a lot of change and upheaval. So, as we talk about warning signs, it’s important to keep in mind that teenagers go through a lot of physical, mental, social and emotional changes. For example, it’s normal for teenagers to withdraw from their parents to spend more time with friends. Complete social withdrawal is not. Here are some warning signs to watch for:

  • threatening to hurt or kill themselves
  • seeking access to a means to commit suicide (weapons, pills, etc)
  • talking or writing about death, dying or suicide- this includes schoolwork, art and creative writing
  • expressing hopelessness, no reason for living, or no sense of purpose in life
  • having rage, anger or seeking revenge
  • acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities
  • feeling trapped
  • increasing alcohol or drug use
  • withdrawing from friends, family or society
  • dramatic mood changes (even from sad to happy)
  • sleeping all the time or not being able to sleep
  • anxiety or agitation
  • giving away prized possessions

That’s a lot of warning signs! As you keep those signs in mind, think about what normal behavior is for the person you’re concerned about. Then ask yourself if their behavior is interfering with any of the following:

  • school
  • relationships
  • doing things they used to enjoy

If it’s interfering with their normal lives, its a warning sign and it’s a good idea to ask them about it. It’s also good to recognize that you may see no distinguishable warning signs. Teenagers can be very impulsive.

You can also keep risk factors for suicide in mind also, a couple of important risk factors to know are: family history of suicide and being exposed to others’ suicidal behavior, such as that of family members, peers, or celebrities. Some wonder if suicide is genetic, we honestly don’t know.

You can read more about risk factors on the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Know How to Help

The instructors taught me a really great acronym to help me remember how to intervene when I think someone is having a mental health crisis. It’s the same regardless of suicidal feelings or type mental illness. Right now, I’ll stress the fact that I don’t diagnose. That’s left to the mental health professionals. My training is to be more like a “first-responder”. Medical first aid is meant to help someone until they can get professional help. Mental health first aid works the same way. Anyway, the acronym is ALGEE and here’s what it stands for.

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen nonjudgementally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies

I will cover this acronym in another post. For this post we only need to be concerned with the first letter- Assess for risk of suicide or harm.

Assess for Risk of Suicide or Harm

First, start by sharing that you’ve noticed some changes in them that you’re concerned about. Ask them if they’re okay or if there’s anything they want to tell you. Now, it’s really important to take this conversation one step further and directly ask them if they are thinking about committing suicide or killing themselves. As uncomfortable as it may feel for you, do not avoid using the word suicide. Talking about suicide will not put the idea in someone’s mind.

If they answer yes, the next step is to find out how serious or urgent things are. You’re going to try to determine whether or not they have a plan for committing suicide. You do that by asking these three questions:

  • Have you decided how you’re going to kill yourself?
  • Have you decided when you’re going to do it?
  • Have you taken any steps to get what you need to carry out your plan?

The stronger their planning is, the greater the risk. Is also important to know that a lack of a plan does not mean they are safe.

Now, there are a couple more questions to ask:

  • Have you been using alcohol or drugs?
  • Have you attempted suicide before?

At this point, your goal is to keep this person safe. You do not leave them alone. If you can’t stay with them, get someone who can.

Help them (and their parents) get professional help as soon as possible by taking them to the emergency room of a hospital, mental health clinic or a doctor’s office. There are also several suicide hotlines you can call if you’re not sure what to do (US only):

1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

1-800-TALK (8255)

1-800-799-4tty (4889) for hearing and speech impaired.

Know Your Resources

There are so many great resources out there to help with suicide awareness and prevention. I’m going to direct you toward a couple to get you started. Many of these sites have resource pages, too.

USA Mental Health First AidOffers classes in mental health first aid like the one I took. These courses are offered all over the United States.

Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition-Provides information on suicide intervention courses, support groups, gun safety, and information for those supporting someone who is struggling with suicidal feeling

A Request

The State of Utah has enlisted my help in getting a suicide prevention message to you. They’re asking gun owners to lock up their guns. Although guns do not cause suicide, guns and suicide are closely tied to each other. More than half of all suicides in the US are committed by firearms. Having guns and firearms in the home is a risk factor for suicide. Suicidal feelings can be temporary and can come on quickly. Preventing access to a means to commit suicide may be all it takes to save someone’s life.

If you’d like to know more about teen suicide prevention and guns, you can watch this video here.