What can you do to safeguard your teen from suicide?Written by Beth Saadati
I no longer remember where my husband and two younger kids were when I chatted with my freshman daughter. But now, with hindsight about teen suicide slightly closer to 20/20, I may never forget our brief conversation.
Jenna had just completed her English Honours homework. While she tossed a pen and highlighter into her backpack, I picked up the Ethan Frome paperback she’d dropped on the kitchen table. Since I hadn’t read it, I quickly scanned the back-cover copy. Then, curious, I asked what she thought of the novel.
“Mattie Silver, one of the characters, sure was stupid,” Jenna said. “She crashed a sled into a tree and ended up paralyzed for the rest of her life. If she wanted to kill herself, she should have done it right.” Her comment surprised me, but I didn’t see a red flag for suicide. Jenna was an avid reader, and I was a high school English teacher. Lively literature discussions frequently filled our home.
Neither did I recognize that suicidal thoughts were no stranger to her. We were talking about characters in a book after all. I glanced, unconcerned, at my beautiful girl who earned straight As on her report cards, marched with the band, made healthy choices, loved God and life, and had a flock of faithful friends.
I also failed to talk about suicide by personalizing the conversation. Similar to the teens I taught, Jenna had encountered some “normal” challenges while navigating the complicated adolescent culture. She’d never shown warning signs for suicide, though. Except for a recent school bullying incident I thought we’d addressed, her first high school semester seemed to be mostly positive.
A few short months later, however, with no previous attempts, my firstborn unexpectedly ended her life. Needless to say, our brief Ethan Frome conversation immediately came to mind, and I longed for the opportunity to rewind time.
Know the facts about teen suicide
Facts are merely facts until suicidehappens to someone we love. Then we suddenly wish we’d taken proactive measures to prevent such shattering loss.
Suicide has become an epidemic – and, frankly, the facts about teen suicide are quite sobering. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10–14 in the U.S. Mental Health America lists suicide as the third leading cause of death for ages 15–24, and the second leading cause of death for college-age young adults.
The percentage breakdown regarding suicidal ideation in teens, however, is especially astounding. Based on the latest CDC 2019 Youth Risk Behaviors Survey, 19 per cent of U.S. youth in grades 9–12 have seriously contemplated suicide. Among high school students, 16 per cent have gone a step further to construct a suicide plan. And 9 per cent reported that they had attempted to end their life during the past 12 months.
When seventh- and eighth-graders are added to that 9 per cent statistic, the number of daily suicide attempts, as reported by the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, totals 5,400 per day. In other words, preteens and teens are a population at risk.
Teen depression is also rising, with a newly released CDC report documenting that “44 per cent reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” Because the rational part of a teen’s brain – the prefrontal cortex – doesn’t fully develop until age 25, teens often lack good judgment and long-term consequence awareness. Instead, teens commonly rely on the amygdala portion of the brain, which results in increased emotional processing of information.
Armed with this knowledge I didn’t have then, I would give anything for a second chance to help guide Jenna through the tumultuous teenage years. Here are a few steps we can take to safeguard our teens from suicide and increase the odds that they’ll choose to live:
Most parents are familiar with the warning signs of suicidal thinking. Some signs, however, such as feeling trapped or hopeless, isolating from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, and being anxious or irritable, can easily be interpreted as normal teen behaviour. To complicate matters, the SPCC notes that only four out of five teens who complete suicide show clear outward signs. Jenna was part of the 20 per cent that didn’t.
Unfortunately, adolescents frequently mask suicidal thoughts. In the suicide letter my daughter left behind, Jenna said she hid her thoughts because she didn’t want to worry or hurt the people who loved her. Collected data also hints that, although gifted students such as Jenna seem to “have it all together,” they tend to be more prone to suicidal ideation due to perfectionistic tendencies, social- or self-inflicted pressure to succeed, and increased sensitivity. Gifted teens may also hesitate to ask for help, because they unrealistically think they should be smart enough to handle life’s problems alone.
Regardless of a teen’s genetic makeup or disposition, parents must remain alert to the smallest of signs, since suicide is not a respecter of persons.
My husband and I never discussed suicide with Jenna. We didn’t see any reason to. Our daughter still seemed young and innocent, so, until the terrible night she died, the topic didn’t cross my mind. How I wish it would have.
Mental health discussions should be as natural as talking about physical health or daily occurrences. Research shows talking about suicide doesn’t make it any more likely that a teen will choose to follow through. Rather, it significantly lessens the chance of it happening.
At first, asking questions might feel awkward. But if you’re willing to listen without judging or giving unsought advice, here are a few to try:
- Are you alright?
- What’s causing you to feel sad?
- I’d like to listen. Can you tell me more?
- Have you thought about ending your life?
Since COVID, many school districts have instituted weekly advisory times for students and teachers to talk about mental health issues. While in-school discussions may not be as organic as family conversation, this attempt to address an important topic seems to be reducing mental health stigma in the younger generation, which should make initiating at-home conversations a little easier.
So talk about suicide. Start when your kids are young. And always remind them that, no matter how hard life gets, suicide should never be an option.
Find a mentor
Jenna talked constantly, telling me a hundred times more than I ever told my parents. Without me asking, she shared everything from struggles to crushes. But she never revealed her desire to die.
Whether a teen confides every day or only once each season, it’s important to have another trusted adult your child can open up to. During my first years teaching high school, I served as a volunteer YoungLife leader. The staff member, Luis, was constantly surrounded by YoungLife teens. He and his wife, Jill, were also adored by their two sweet, little daughters. I remember Luis saying, however, that when his own girls reached adolescence, he would find them a mentor, because they would need someone besides their dad and mom to talk to.
My 16-year-old son, Josh, benefits from that wisdom. Every other week he meets with Andre, a young high school teacher and youth group leader. They walk and talk about tough subjects. Josh and Andre climb through underground water pipes. They do crazy guy stuff and eat ice cream.
Even though Josh and I have a close relationship, there are things he can’t tell me. But that’s okay. Thankfully, Josh has Andre here to help him navigate life’s disappointments and difficulties along the way.
Connect with a counsellor
A couple of months before her death, Jenna asked to see a counsellor about her fear of spiders. My husband and I intended to schedule an initial session but, busy with the holiday season, never did. In retrospect, we’re fairly certain Jenna requested the appointment for another reason. How I wish we’d provided that opportunity.
Now, with my two remaining teens, we do. They haven’t told us they’re struggling with suicidal ideation. But we want them to have met with a counsellor at least a few times to establish a trusted relationship, so when life gets tough – and it will, whether due to heartbreak or the transition to college – they’ll already have professional help in place.
Scheduling an appointment may feel as awkward as instigating conversation about suicide, but please do. Mental health is becoming less stigmatized with this younger generation. A few of my son’s friends have told their parents they’d like to meet with a counsellor, but the parents have resisted due to time and money. Although therapy is costly, be sure to follow through.
Final thoughts on how to safeguard your teen from suicide
Unfortunately, a guarantee doesn’t come with the safeguarding suggestions. Since losing Jenna, I’ve met parents who remained aware, talked about suicide, and connected their teen with a mentor and counsellor – but their son or daughter still made a devastating decision. Nevertheless, the preventative measures are, indeed, a small price to pay to increase the odds that your teen will find help and hope and choose to live another day.
For more resources and training on teen suicide prevention, visit Alive to Thrive, a comprehensive website provided by Focus on the Family in the U.S.
Beth Saadati teaches high school English, freelances as a writer and editor, blogs at BethSaadati.com, and parents two beloved teens. She and her husband, Komron, live in Greenville, South Carolina. With an MFA in creative writing, Beth shares stories that blend insight, hope, and grief after unexpectedly losing her oldest daughter, Jenna, to suicide.
© 2022 Beth Saadati. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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