Suicidal Teens: What are the Signs? What do you do?


Rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are high among teens. The traditional high school age range is a mine field, where danger hides just out of sight. But understanding of the risks and signs can help prevent suicide in any group, including teens.

Based on the 2017 Youth Risk Behaviors Survey, 7.4 percent of youth in grades 9-12 reported that they had made at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months. Female students attempted almost twice as often as male students (9.3% vs. 5.1%). Black students reported the highest rate of attempt (9.8%) with white students at 6.1 percent. Approximately 2.4 percent of all students reported making a suicide attempt that required treatment by a doctor or nurse. For those requiring treatment, rates were highest for Black students (3.4%).

But there are signs you can look for to know if your teen is susceptible. Recognizing these signs is the best way to prevent suicide in any group.


There are conditions that make ideations and attempts more likely in a young person. Some of these are intuitive, but others may surprise you.

  • Family history of depression or suicide or suicide attempt
  • Exposure to peers who have attempted suicide
  • Their own previous suicide attempt
  • Mental or Mood disorders – depression, bipolar, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Feelings of distress, irritability, or agitation
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Abuse – emotional, physical, or sexual
  • Social isolation, including dysfunctional family relationships
  • Identification as LGBTQ, especially in an unsupportive family or communityhigh risk for suicide


For the most part, teens (13-19) and adolescents (9-19) have similar triggers. Among these groups, suicidal ideation can be triggered by any number of stressful life events including being bullied at school, the ending of a romantic relationship, familial divorce or conflict, personal spiritual crisis, etc.

Signs of such ideation might appear as:

  • Talk about suicide or death in general or personally
  • Looking for means, such as buying a gun
  • Giving hints that they might not be around anymore
  • Feeling hopelessness, guilt or being a burden
  • Choosing isolation
  • Writing songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss
  • Giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends
  • Loss of interest in things they previously enjoyed, and/or school or sports
  • Having trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Engaging in risky/dangerous behaviors


Responding to an adult’s ideation of suicide and a teen’s ideations are different, because teens haven’t fully matured yet and are more sensitive in some ways and less aware in others. But responding to these signs just might prevent suicide obsessions or attempts.

There are things you can do regardless of the age of the person expressing ideation and they include:

  1. Encourage the person to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
  2. Encourage the person to seek treatment.  If they won’t consult with a professional, suggest finding help from a support group, crisis center, faith community, teacher or other trusted person. You can offer support but remember, you are not a substitute for a mental health provider.
  3. Encourage the person to avoid alcohol and drug use. Substance abuse further clouds judgement.

The following may be more useful when working with teens:

  1. Offer to help the person take steps to get assistance and support. For example, you can research treatment options, make phone calls and review insurance benefit information, or even offer to go with the person to an appointment.
  2. Encourage communication with you. Listen attentively, avoid interrupting, and do not pass judgement or minimize their feelings.
  3. Be respectful and acknowledge the person’s feelings. Not respecting how the person feels can shut down communication.
  4. Never promise to keep someone’s suicidal feelings a secret. Your person’s life may be in danger. Secrets don’t help, getting help does.
  5. Reassure the person that with appropriate treatment, he or she can develop other ways to cope and can feel better about life again.
  6. Remove potentially dangerous items from the person’s home, such as knives, razors, guns or drugs. If the person takes a medication that could be used for overdose, encourage him or her to have someone safeguard it and give it as prescribed. It is easier to prevent suicide when the tools are not near at hand.teens - what to do


Teens may be hard for adults to understand. Sometimes they can’t understand their peers either. So, remember to be sensitive, supportive and encouraging, and direct them to professional services. These are the best actions to take, proven by experts, to prevent suicides.

This article is part of a brief series for the National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14) for 2019. Other articles in this series include:

3 Important Things to do in Response to Suicidal Ideation


Suicidal Ideation: how to hear what isn’t being said

Jim Sliney Jr. is a Registered Medical Assistant and a Columbia University trained Writer/Editor. He createsjim sliney jr education and advocacy materials for patient support groups. Jim has worked closely with several rare disease communities. He also coordinates the patient content for PatientsRising and collaborates with other writers to hone their craft. Jim is a native New Yorker where he lives with his wife and all their cats. Twitter  Email

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