This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on March 5, 2019 by Mary A. Gagnon, LMFT; Health Affiliates Maine
“She’s such a drama queen.”
“All he wants is attention.”
“They’re not serious.”
These words—and others like them—lead to the dangerous belief that a teen who is talking about suicide should be dismissed or, even worse, purposely ignored. Those beliefs can sometimes lead to tragic results.
Adolescence is a time of change, change that is often frightening and confusing for teens. Their bodies are changing. Their minds, too, are changing, but they are not yet ready for all of the decisions they face. It’s important to understand this because teens often act without thinking and have little experience in managing their emotions. These are two risk factors for suicide. Other risk factors—mental health issues, poor coping/social skills, perfectionism, unrealistic parental expectations, family conflict, abuse, and more—heighten the risk for teens already struggling to learn how to become adults.
As adults, it’s easy to brush off a teen’s behavior as “dramatic” or “attention-seeking.” So how can we tell the difference between a teen having a bad day and a teen who needs more support? Look for some of these signs:
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves
- Making plans to kill themselves
- Expressing hopelessness about the future
- Displaying extreme distress or emotionality (more than is typical for a person their age or for the teen in general)
- Increase in agitation, irritability, anger (more than is typical, or an extreme change)
- Withdrawal from activities they used to enjoy
What can you do if you suspect that an adolescent is thinking about suicide? First, you show them you care. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask them what’s going on in their lives, who their friends are, how their academics are going, how they’re feeling. And if they tell you, listen. Teens know if you’re not being sincere, so don’t make it an interrogation—make it a curious, genuine inquiry. Second, you ask the question—Are you thinking about suicide? Yes, it’s direct, and yes, it’s scary. However, it’s the only way to get the answers you need, and the consequences of not asking could be dire. Don’t worry—you won’t put the idea in their heads. That’s a myth. And third, you get them help. If they say yes, you make sure to connect them with a mental health or medical professional right away, and do not leave them alone. If they say no, it’s still a good idea to help them connect to a mental health professional because even if they aren’t planning to take their own lives, chances are good that they could use some extra support.
One of the major factors in preventing suicide is the presence of caring adults in the lives of teens. Truly, adults can make the difference for adolescents considering suicide. Be the difference. Show you care.
*Credit to the Maine Suicide Prevention Program (www.namimaine.org) for information regarding signs and risk factors for suicide.
Mary Gagnon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the Training and Clinical Development Specialist for Health Affiliates Maine. Mary has worked in private practice as well as a variety of community mental health settings throughout her career. Her most recent work at Health Affiliates Maine includes oversight of clinicians in private practice and development and facilitation of trainings for schools and conferences throughout the state. She is also trained to provide Suicide Prevention Awareness sessions for the Maine Suicide Prevention Program.