Suicidal talk in children or teens is a warning sign that should not be taken lightly, dismissed or laughed off. As stated by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “Any expression of suicidal thoughts or feelings by a child or adolescent is a clear signal of distress and should be taken very seriously by health care professionals, parents, family members, teachers, and others.”
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Suicide is extremely rare among preteens, although it does occur. It is much more common among teens and young adults. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology (AACAP) reports that for children between the ages of 5 and 14, suicide is the sixth-leading cause of death as of 2008; for young people between 15 and 24, it is the third-leading cause of death as of 2008. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.3 percent of high school students attempted suicide in 2009, while 13.8 percent seriously considered attempting suicide.
The U.S. Surgeon General estimates 90 percent of children and teens who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder. The AACAP explains suicidal behavior in teens can result from stress, pressure to succeed, self-doubt, confusion, parental divorce or a change in family situation. “For some teens, suicide may appear to be a solution to their problems and stress.”
Types of Suicidal Talk
According to the AACAP, suicidal talk can include verbal hints such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer," "Nothing matters," "It’s no use" and "I won’t see you again.” The suicidal youth may also state he or she feels “rotten inside” or is a bad person. The AACAP warns, “If a child or adolescent says, I want to kill myself, or I'm going to commit suicide, always take the statement seriously and immediately seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional.”
Other Warning Signs
Suicidal talk is one of the signs a child or teen might be seriously considering taking his or her own life. According to the AACAP, other signs may include social withdrawal, a change in sleeping and eating patterns, a change in personality, violent or rebellious behavior, problems with schoolwork, poor personal grooming, physical complaints and a lack of interest in enjoyable activities. Teens who are seriously thinking about suicide may also make preparations, such as giving or throwing away possessions or cleaning their rooms.
How to Respond to Suicidal Talk in Children
When children or teens talk about suicide, the best response is to ask them in a direct, compassionate way if they are thinking of hurting or killing themselves. Contrary to popular belief, asking children or teens if they are thinking about suicide does not raise the risk they will become suicidal. On the contrary, it gives them permission to share their feelings and relieve their burden. According to the AACAP, “Rather than putting thoughts in the child’s head, such a question will provide assurances that somebody cares and will give the young person the chance to talk about problems.”
Prevention and Treatment
Instead of shying away from talking about suicide with children and teens, such discussions should be part of treatment to prevent suicide. According to the APA, “When a young person talks about suicidal thoughts, it often opens the door to discussion regarding the need to take special safety precautions or protective measures; thus a treatment approach that increases discussion of previously unspoken suicidal thoughts or impulses is helpful.”