Suicide among youth is a reality we would rather not think about, but it’s more common than most people think. Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 11-18 — a major public health crisis for youth and their families. Fortunately, there is so much we can do to help prevent teen suicide. The first step in suicide prevention is understanding the factors that make certain young people more susceptible to this tragic decision.
While there are always a number of factors that come together to make a young person feel desperate and hopeless, the most important risk factor to consider is depression. With almost 30 percent of American high schoolers reporting feeling so sad or hopeless for more than two weeks that they stopped doing usual activities, we know that many kids are struggling. And just like the flu, asthma or any health disorder, depression can strike anyone — from the captain of the football team to the class president. A down or irritable mood is just one sign to consider.
Teens suffering from depression may stay up all night playing video games (because they can’t sleep), pick at each meal or overeat, complain of stomachaches or headaches, and withdraw from friends. You may wonder whether a teen’s behavior is just part of normal growing pains or a symptom of something more serious. Consider whether you have noticed a marked change in their behavior: a cautious, thoughtful teen engaging in increasingly risky behavior or a bubbly adolescent now withdrawing from friends. If you are still not sure, reach out to parents and teachers. You may see changes in a young person’s behavior on a team or youth group, while a teacher notices dropping grades and parents are concerned about acting out at home.
Research shows that kids are much more likely to talk to each other about emotional struggles than to adults. That is why it is so important for all teens to learn the signs and symptoms of depression and what to do if they are worried about a friend. The SOS Signs of Suicide® Prevention Program is an evidence-based, universal prevention program for schools and youth -serving organizations. Using the help-seeking acronym ACT® (Acknowledge, Care and Tell), SOS teaches all young people how to respond if they are concerned about a friend.
It is very important that adults who work with youth are well versed with the same message. The most common myth about suicide is that talking about it could make it worse or put the idea in someone’s head. In fact, the opposite is true. Bringing up the subject and talking about it openly is one of the best things you can do. If you are concerned about a young person, remember to follow these simple steps ACT:
- Acknowledge that you are seeing symptoms of depression or signs of suicide and that you must intervene: “It seems like you are dealing with some major struggles right now.”
- Care: express your concern: “It pains me to see you hurting like this, and I know that I
- Tell: “There are people who know how to help kids who are dealing with big issues like this. Let’s call your parents together and we can talk about how to get you help.”
Meghan Diamon is program manager at Screening for Mental Health, a national nonprofit and the pioneer in large-scale mental health screenings for the public. The organization developed stopasuicide.org to help individuals learn the warning signs of suicide and action steps to take to get help for themselves or someone they care about.
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