As a parent or caregiver, you do so much to protect and care for your child. You provide love, support, and safety. However, in today’s increasingly complex world, we know that youth mental health is broadly at risk. With the United States Surgeon General issuing a warning on youth mental health, it benefits all parents and caregivers to better understand the warning signs and symptoms that could lead to suicide.

While suicide can be a challenging topic to learn more about and discuss with young people, it is critical that we do so. Not talking about suicide does not reduce its risk, but rather intensifies the subject. This September, in honor of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, take some time to familiarize yourself with suicide risk factors and signs and symptoms to watch out for.

Understanding Suicide

Suicide is a grave concern for young people as rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking have been increasing. Key factors that contribute to youth suicide include:

  • Mental Health Conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or substance use disorder can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts. If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, it is important to work closely with them and their treatment team to ensure they are attending appointments, taking medication as prescribed, and having an open dialogue about their mental health symptoms. By working closely with providers and providing a safe space for your young person to talk about their mental health, you are ensuring they have protective factors and the support they need to live with their mental health condition.
  • Academic or Peer Pressure can be an influence that drives young people to feel bad about themselves. Overwhelming academic or performance pressure can place high stress on young people, which can take a toll on mental health. Bullying or peer pressure can also lead to feelings of isolation and despair. Ensuring that your child has both the academic and social support needed can be a tool for suicide prevention.
  • Relationship Dynamics—Being exposed to challenging familial dynamics or relationship dynamics, in general, can contribute to feelings of hopelessness. Abuse, neglect, and any experience of trauma can be a risk factor for suicide. Ensuring children who have experienced trauma or challenging relationship dynamics get the support they need through therapy or other supportive interventions is critical to preventing suicide risk.

What to Watch For

Being attentive to your young person and their emotions is critical. While everyone is unique, knowing your young person’s baseline and understanding common signs and symptoms can help you to understand if your young person is struggling.

  • Withdrawal from friends and family could be a sign that something isn’t right for your young person. If they are withdrawing from social activities, especially ones that they may have been excited about at one point, it is important to check in. Isolating and declining enthusiasm in making social connections can be a sign of mental health symptoms, including suicidal thinking.
  • Changes in mood, including prolonged feelings of sadness, irritability, or expression of hopelessness should never be ignored. If you notice changes in mood in your young person, ensure that you have an open dialogue with them about their mood. If your young person is resistant to discussing mood changes, ensure they have safe spaces to process their feelings, such as with other friends, mentors, or a mental health professional such as a therapist.
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed may be a sign of mental health symptoms. If your young person is suddenly less interested in extracurricular activities they once enjoyed or hanging out with friends they used to, it may be a suitable time to start an open conversation to understand what is prompting a loss of interest.
  • Changes at school: If your young person experiences changes in school performance that indicate a sudden drop in grades, or if they are receiving more disciplinary action, this may be cause for concern. In this circumstance, it is important to connect with both your child and their teachers to understand what the cause of a change in performance could be.
  • Talking about suicide or wanting to die. Even casual mentions of suicide should not be taken lightly. Remember that asking someone if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts does not cause suicide. It is important to be open and direct when talking about suicide. Not talking about it directly or using words that obfuscate the meaning can do more harm than good.

Steps for Prevention

  • Education: Congratulations, if you have read this far in this article you have already taken a great step to help prevent suicide. Education is a key piece to understanding the signs and symptoms to watch out for. Educating yourself on the topic can also help you have thoughtful and open conversations with those you love.
  • Open Communication: It can be hard to talk about challenging things, and suicide can be incredibly challenging. While you may have some fear about having an open conversation about suicide, remember that it is brave to do so. Talking about suicide does not cause it, but begins a thoughtful conversation on suicide that can be helpful to someone struggling.
  • Finding the Right Treatment Options: Prevention of suicide begins and is continually supported by finding the treatment options that will work well for your young person. When first experiencing symptoms, it can take some time to find the best treatment plan. However, over time and through collaborating with mental health providers, your young person should be able the find the tools and resources needed to better manage their symptoms.
  • Limiting Access to Risk Factors: Suicides account for over half of the overall deaths caused by a gun. Limiting access to guns is critically important to the prevention of suicide. Additionally, parents and caregivers should consider other lethal means such as medications or items that contain hazardous chemicals.

Suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility, especially when we think about protecting the youngest among us. It requires parents, caregivers, educators, and clinicians to work together to promote education, have open conversations, and limit harmful means.