In my upcoming public speaking event I will be sharing warning signs of suicide to the families of Saint Andrews church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. This is a follow up talk offering support to families in a community where there were three youth suicides in the same week – Littleton, Colorado where I myself live and I’m raising two teenagers myself. I miss this tragedy it’s even challenged me to stay on top of my mindfulness of my own kids stressors and signs. Blog disclaimer: please know that we need to react appropriately. Don’t overreact. Don’t under react. Just because you may see some of these warning signs doesn’t mean you need to place your teenager on the mental health hold for 72 hours in a facility. But at the same time if you see a lot of these and you have seen them for a consistent amount of time Don’t ignore the signs. Please get help.
Please also note that I am a survivor of suicide myself – in high school my best friend committed suicide at my house. At the time we didn’t have all of this great information of warning signs that we do now. Perhaps that experience helped ignite a fire in me to help others. But I just wanted you to know that I come from a personal place of pain and commitment to helping make a difference in the area of teen suicide. There is a Colorado campaign running currently called zero suicides. That is what I’m talking about! It’s a lofty goal but it is something I’m very passionate about. Even one suicide is one too many. And wounds left a monks the friends and family members can last a lifetime.
Even One Suicide Is Too Many
Number One: Isolation
Houston crisis will often pull away from their friends and family members. Some youth are kind of introverted by nature and this may or may not be an actual risk factor. But if you’re extremely outgoing teen never comes out of his or her room this might be a red flag. They also might complain about feeling alone no one is there for me.
Number Two: Aggressiveness and Irritability
The teenage years are a tough time for all teens. They are experiencing hormonal changes and being exposed to a lot of life challenges. As such they might be moody or irritable from time to time. But if you’re typically easy-going teen starts to really snap at you or even become really aggressive – punching holes in walls throwing things hitting you… This may be a red flag as well
Number Three: Possessing Lethal Means
In the state of Colorado A predominant amount of suicides happen by gunshot wound. Coloradans may have guns in their homes for variety of reasons: because the family has a tradition of hunting, for wildlife management and control in rural and mountainous areas, or for other reasons. The long and short of this is – lock up your guns and ammo. If a teen that’s going through suicidal thoughts has access to guns it increases their chances of successfully completing a suicide tenfold. If you have a teenager in the home that is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts it also may not be a bad idea to get all firearms out of the home even for a short time while the teen receives treatment and stabilizes. Placing your firearms with a family member in a locked cabinet Simply reduces the risk of suicide.
Number Four: Feeling like a Burden to Others
This may manifest in a variety of ways. Some teens are highly sensitive and if the family is going through any sort of hardship they don’t want to add to the stressors. This could be a teen that says it’s OK if we can’t afford that sports equipment I know money is tight for the family… Or the teen that pulls away and doesn’t ask for help because mom and dad are stressed at work. The tenets says I’m sorry a lot may have this sort of emotional temperament that feels hyper responsible and does not want to add to anyone else’s stress – could be cause for concern.
Number Five: Drastic Mood Changes
Some teenagers are very dramatic to begin with. Some teens are in the drama club or act in community theater. They may be “overly dramatic” by nature. But mood swings can be less dramatic – a positive teen starts to be moody and grumpy all the time. Or they go from happy to angry too sad like a sports car from 0 to 60 in eight seconds. If you see quick mood changes or more than usual mood swings – this may be a call for alarm.
Number 6: Frequently Talking About Death
Some young people are dark by nature. They enjoyed dark music they were black clothing and some even identify as goth or Emo. And there has been a revival of zombies in pop culture via shows and movies like The Walking Dead or pride and prejudice with zombies. But some teenagers may start talking about what happens when I die? What Happens at a funeral? But keywords or phrases include: I wish I wasn’t here, you guys would be better off if I weren’t here, I wish I was dead, I wish I didn’t have all of this pain and it would just go away. Statement like these may be a cause for concern but also just may be the teen expressing themselves
Number Six: Self Harm and Cutting
There has been a wave of cutting behaviors over the past decade or so amongst young people. And behavioral health we also called a self harming behaviors which could include: minor cuts with household object that seems harmless like a paperclip, scratching, biting oneself, burning with cigarettes, up to deep wounds from kitchen knives or razor blades. What is somewhat alarming to me is that there are even websites and blogs and posts that glorify this behavior and we will “teach” readers and viewers how to self harm. In speaking with my clients over the years they report that cutting or self harm helps release tension. And for most Who engage in ongoing cutting Report that they have difficulty managing emotional pain in the physical pain is somewhat of a break from the emotional pain. For suicide warning signs we want to be on the lookout for new behaviors that you haven’t seen before or cutting behaviors increasing in frequency and severity. Here’s the tricky part: cutters by nature can hide this behavior really well with long sleeves and hoodies and other clothing. In other words you may not know that this behavior is happening. My best advice on this is to create an environment where your teenager feels open to share if they are cutting or self harming and to not overreact but instead thank them for feeling safe enough to share this information with you and refer your teen for counseling.
Number Eight: Engaging in Risky Behaviors
OK so as a teen I might or might not have engaged in these kinds of things ha ha! I might have snuck out at night a couple of times in my youth… I might have gone to a water tower with my friends but didn’t actually climb the tower in the wee hours of the night… Risky behaviors can happen along a spectrum. They can start out small and build too risky physical emotional or sexual behaviors that are unusual or out of character for your teenager. Some of your teens may enjoy high adrenaline activities like rock climbing black diamond skiing or skydiving. But if you’re otherwise kind of shy and quiet teenager start engaging in risky behaviors this could be a warning sign.
Number Nine: Making Funeral Arrangements
So I am a grown adult and I Don’t have my funeral arranged!?! If a teenager is planning out their own funeral this is a pretty significant warning sign. In behavioral health we talk about future orientation. In some ways this can be a positive sign as well – when a patient in the hospital talks about getting back to their normal routine or activities that bring them happiness and joy – being with friends, going to a concert, going camping, even watching TV with their dog; all of these are positive future orientations. But when a teenager is talking about a funeral instead of going out with their friends this could be a pretty significant warning sign.
Number Ten: Giving Things Away
This is one that I wish I had known about when my best friend Jeff was struggling. My best friend Jeff gave me his bass guitar. That may not sound like that big of a deal Dash but we were both into music as teenagers we had a little garage band and we would jam together… And even at the time it struck me as weird – why is he giving me his face when he loves to play bass all the time??? Be on the lookout for this one as it may be subtle but really powerful. The more attachment to the object the higher the risk. The teen that gives her best friend that coveted necklace from her grandmother… That teenager who gives his favorite Xbox or PlayStation away… These could all be pretty significant warning signs that the teen is plotting suicide very quietly.
Number Eleven: Substance Abuse
Man, has this arena changed over the past 20 to 30 years! Back in the day it would not be unusual for a group of friends to sneak away and have a six pack of beer… Maybe a joint… And the really wild kids would have cocaine on them. These days kids are having parties where they put their drugs in the middle of the table and share them. Without getting too much into issues around substance-abuse here’s what you need to be on the lookout for regarding suicide risk factors: teens who start using that never used before, teens who might be using recreationally or occasionally increasing to daily use, teens who graduate from smoking pot or drinking one can of beer to using heroin or trying harder drugs like math or designer drugs Like Molly. The reality is a significant amount of suicides occur when substance abuse is a part of the equation. In other words substances deadening our ability to control impulses. Being intoxicated or impaired increases the risk of a completion of suicide. If substance abuse is an issue that your teen is struggling with reach out for help for your teen
Number Twelve: Making Suicidal Threats
This can be a range of statements – I wish I wasn’t here… You would be better off without me… All the way up to a full blown plan – I’m going to shoot myself with dad‘s gun. And everything in between. For some teenagers making threats is more of a call for attention. Whatever the case may be please don’t ignore this and get your teenagerHelp immediately. In my experience it’s the teenager that doesn’t make any sort of statement that I worry about The most.Another words they suffer silently and our masking their sadness depression or struggles. They are the ones that will say “I’m fine“ and don’t really open up…
Number 13: Negative View of Self
All teenagers struggle with developing and building their self-esteem. One of the main pillars of self-esteem is developing skills that might be simple or basic but that help the teenager feel like an expert in a subject or activity. Some teenagers have a lot of skills on board and are highly skilled at a lot of different things. Some teenagers have one or two areas that they excel in. In this case I would keep my eye out for the teenager that doesn’t feel like they have any special skills. Or the teenager that says I’m sorry a lot. Other teenagers might say: I suck, I’m a horrible person, I don’t deserve to be here… And any other variation of these themes.
Number Fourteen: Hopelessness or No Hope in the Future
When I was a teenager I wore a button around on my blue Jean jacket (I know I’m an old guy…) The button said: who knows, who cares, why bother. This is a common mantra for teenagers as they challenge the status quo of life. But for the sake of risk factors we are looking for the teenager who says: Why should I even try, the situation is hopeless, this will never get better… Or any variation of this kind of message. This could have to do with things close to home like schoolwork the family or friends. Or it could be higher level in nature about the environment or politics or the world today. Whatever the case maybe this could also be a warning sign if the teenager says there’s no point… Things will never change… Why should I even try… you may want to seek help for your teen.
In closing I would look at all of these risk factors together. Maybe you’ve seen what a few of these hit for your teen. Maybe you’ve seen a lot of these. Maybe some of them have been severe and others have been low risk. Whatever the case may be, if you feel your teenager is in trouble refer them to their school counselor or find a therapist that specializes in treating children and teens.
Please know that in a therapeutic situation a teenager might take a little while to build trust and feel comfortable Sharing these kinds of feelings and thoughts with their provider. But above all don’t ignore the signs. And while you’re at it get help for yourself as well – raising a teenager today can be very challenging and if you have a teenager the struggles with mental health issues you could use education and support for helping them thrive as well.
If you’re looking for more, feel free to look into my individual therapy sessions.