No child is immune to the risk of suicide, but statistics show some kids may be more vulnerable than others to thoughts of ending their lives. Many different factors, and combinations of them, can contribute to suicide risk.
Awareness of the following risk factors can help parents recognize if their child needs extra supervision, support, and chances to talk.
Previous suicide attempts
- A previous suicide attempt is strongly tied to a future suicide. Even a full year after a suicide attempt, the risk remains high. Follow-up care and support are essential for anyone who has attempted suicide before. Deliberate but non-suicidal self-harm, such as cutting, also puts kids at higher risk for suicide within the following year.
- Studies show that suicide by one family member increases the risk of suicide among others within the family. Ongoing family conflicts, abuse, violence, lack of family connectedness, and parents' mental health problems can also raise a child's suicide risk. Changes that involve loss, such as a death of a loved one or family homelessness can put a child at higher risk. A history of foster care and adoption also has been linked to higher suicide risk.
- Many adolescents who take their own lives are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender or questioning their gender identity (LGBTQ). One study found an increased risk of suicide among LGBTQ teens who experienced negative reactions or rejection to the "coming out" process. Another study found transgender and gender non-conforming adolescents had higher than average rates of suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
- Children and teens who are depressed have a higher risk of suicide. Symptoms of depression sometimes are obvious, such as appearing sad, hopeless, bored, overwhelmed, anxious, or irritable all the time. But some kids are good at hiding their feelings or don't know how to share them. Since as many as 1 in every 5 teens experience depression at some point during adolescence, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends all children over age 12 be screened for depression at their yearly checkups.
Other psychiatric illness
- In addition to depression, mood disorders, eating disorders and other psychiatric conditions can increase the risk of suicide. For example, people with schizophrenia may believe they are being told to take their own life by a voice (auditory hallucination), even though they do not want to die.
Use of alcohol and other substances
- Substance use is a factor in roughly 1 in 3 youth suicides. Access to drugs can give teens an easy way to intentionally overdose. In addition, drugs and alcohol abuse can bring on a substance-induced psychotic episode, or a break from reality that might include hallucinations and delusions, which may then lead to suicide.
- Adolescents who tend to get severely angry and have a history of aggressive, impulsive behavior have a much higher risk of suicide. This is because they tend to act out their feelings in a destructive manner. The risk can be worse if they are socially isolated, abusing drugs and alcohol, and have unhealthy media use habits.
Local epidemics of suicide
- Suicide can sometimes be contagious. Several "suicide clusters" have been reported in communities across the U.S. in recent years. In these cases, one teen's death may touch off a chain reaction among others. Parents should pay extra attention to how a peer's suicide affects their children. Talk openly about the situation and point out that the victim probably didn't realize how many people cared about them and that resources are available to help.
Easy access to guns, other lethal methods
- Firearms are the top cause of death for teens age 15-19 who commit suicide. Even when guns are locked up, studies show that teens who live in homes with firearms are more likely to kill themselves than those in homes without guns. Teens, whose brains are still developing, are more impulsive than adults. An in-the-moment decision to attempt suicide with a gun often leaves no chance for rescue. The safest home for children and teens is one without guns.
Bullying and cyberbullying
- Children who are bullied―and those who bully others―are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and actions. This is true whether it is face-to-face or online cyberbullying. One study found children and teens who were cyberbullied were roughly 3 times more likely than peers to have suicidal thoughts.
With suicide now the second most common cause of death among young people between ages 10-24, it's important to know the risk factors and be ready to support your children.
Keep supportive and non-judgmental lines of communication open with your children, especially if they are at increased risk. Get them help if you think they're having thoughts of suicide. Your pediatrician can connect your family with mental health professionals who can help.
If you are unsure about what to do, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255). It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from anywhere in the United States.