Note: This article is not intended as a replacement for suicide counselling. If you or someone you know may be at risk of committing suicide, contact emergency services in your area immediately to get professional advice. Your local phone book will have the telephone numbers of distress lines and support agencies.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death - following motor vehicle accidents - among teenagers and young adults. On average, adolescents aged 15 to 19 years have an annual suicide rate of about 1 in 10,000 people. Among youths 12 to 16 year of age, up to 10% of boys and 20% of girls have considered suicide. Gay and lesbian adolescents are more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Suicide rates are 5 to 7 times higher among First Nations and Inuit teens.
The teen years are an anxious and unsettling period as boys and girls face the difficulties of transition into adulthood. It is a period in life that is often confusing, leaving teens feeling isolated from family or peers.
Unfortunately, some may at one point or another perceive suicide as a permanent answer to problems that are more often than not just temporary. The self doubts, confusion, and pressures to succeed or conform can come at a high price for troubled adolescents.
Girls generally attempt suicide more often than boys, but boys are about 4 times more likely to die from the suicide attempt. This is because the methods that boys choose - often using firearms or hanging - are more lethal than those chosen by girls, namely drug overdoses or cutting themselves.
Many troubling and difficult situations can make a teen consider suicide. The same emotional states that make adults vulnerable to considering suicide also apply to adolescents. Those with good support networks (e.g., among family and peers, or extracurricular sport, social, or religious associations) are likely to have an outlet to help them deal with their feelings. Others without such networks are more susceptible during their emotional changes, and may feel that they're all alone in times of trouble.
Apart from the normal pressures of teen life, specific circumstances can contribute to an adolescent's consideration of suicide. It's especially difficult when adolescents are confronted with problems that are out of their control, such as:
- a new family formation (e.g., step-parents and step-siblings)
- moving to a different community
- physical or sexual abuse
- emotional neglect
- exposure to domestic violence
- alcoholism in the home
- substance abuse
Many suicides are committed by people who are depressed. Depression is a mental health disorder. It causes chemical imbalances in the brain, which can lead to despondency, lethargy, or general apathy towards life. Almost half of 14- and 15-year-olds have reported feeling some symptoms of depression, which makes coping with the extensive stresses of adolescence all the more difficult. Symptoms of depression in youth are often overlooked or passed off as being typical "adolescent turmoil."
Another serious problem that can lead teens to suicide - or aid in their plans to end their lives - is the easy access many of them have to firearms, drugs, alcohol, and motor vehicles. For the general population, about 30% of suicides involve firearms. Of all firearm-related deaths that occur, about 80% are suicides.
Warning signs and risk factors
Suicidal tendencies don't just appear out of the blue: People usually display a number of warning signs when things seem so wrong in their lives that they've simply given up hope. Because adolescence is such a turbulent time, it may be difficult to distinguish the signs that lead to suicide from the changing, sometimes uncertain but otherwise normal behaviour of teens.
Behaviour changes to watch for are:
- withdrawal from family and peers
- loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
- difficulty concentrating on schoolwork
- neglect of personal appearance
- obvious changes in personality
- sadness and hopelessness
- changes in eating patterns, such as sudden weight loss or gain
- changes in sleep patterns
- general lethargy or lack of energy
- symptoms of clinical depression
- violent actions, rebellion, or running away
- drug and alcohol use
- symptoms that are often related to emotional state (e.g., headaches, fatigue, stomach aches)
- loss of ability to tolerate praise or rewards
Though many suicidal teens appear depressed or downcast, others hide their problems underneath a disguise of excess energy. If an adolescent starts displaying uncharacteristic agitation and hyperactivity, it may also signal the existence of an underlying problem. This restlessness may take the form of confrontational or aggressive behaviour.
More obvious signs that an adolescent may be suicidal include low self-esteem and self-deprecating remarks. Some teens come right out and talk or write about their suicidal thoughts - this should be taken seriously, and not ignored with the hope that it's a passing phase. Any previous attempts at suicide are loud and clear cries for help, which demand responses before it's too late.
How to help
It's essential that you take suicidal behaviour or previous attempts seriously - and get assistance quickly. Aside from professional treatment, a suicidal teen needs to know there are people who care, and who are available to talk to. Good support means listening to what's troubling somebody without passing judgment on his or her feelings. A person should be reassured that there are always solutions to problems or ways other than suicide for coping with them. Giving an adolescent the chance to open up and talk about his or her feelings will help relieve some of the distress of those intense emotions, and make that person feel less alone.
Don't hesitate to bring up the subject of suicide, and to ask direct questions. Somebody who hasn't considered ending their life isn't going to adopt the idea simply because the possibility has been raised. On the other hand, for individuals who are thinking about suicide, your concern will only be reassuring. At the same time, people can take the opportunity to open up about their distress.
Some parents may find that their adolescent child resists their advances and isn't willing to confide in them. When teens insist their parents just "don't understand," it might be a good idea to suggest they talk to a more objective or emotionally neutral person. This can include other family members, religious leaders, a school counsellor, a coach, or a trusted doctor.
Restricting access to firearms and ammunition is also an important preventive measure. Weapons kept in the home increase the risk that suicide attempts will be successful, by giving a suicidal adolescent the means to take their own life.
It is very important to seek professional help for the adolescent who may be suicidal. Guidance counsellors at schools or counsellors at crisis centres can help ensure that a distressed teen receives the needed assistance.
As the vast majority of adolescents who commit suicide have depressive symptoms, recognition and evaluation of clinical depression - a treatable medical condition - is essential. Physicians, including psychiatrists, provide both one-on-one counselling and medical treatment for the biochemical causes of depression.
Psychological counselling will help a teen develop effective mechanisms for coping with problems. These will be of value long after adolescence has ended, when a person has to face many of the stresses routinely encountered during adulthood.
Telephone counselling and suicide hotline services, available in most cities and regions, can be found in the telephone book. They offer counselling for a crisis situation, and can provide the immediate support an adolescent may need to survive a low point.
Another place to go during a crisis or in a suicidal state is the emergency ward of a hospital. Receiving the aid of trained professionals will help an adolescent deal with the emotional roller coaster that often leads to suicide. Short-term and long-term care can minimize the risk of committing suicide and help people find alternative solutions to coping with extreme distress.