Suicidal ideation in youth: How to recognize it and what to do


Adolescence and young adulthood is a time filled with exciting adventures, new experiences and increased responsibilities. Unfortunately, it’s also a time marked by increased academic stress and overwhelming life transitions. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. To help the public better understand and prevent suicide, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention designated Sept. 6-12, 2015, as National Suicide Prevention Week.

Most people who commit suicide or think about committing suicide – a condition known as suicidal ideation – have a diagnosable mental illness. Mental illnesses tend to emerge during adolescence and young adulthood, making vigilance essential for peers, parents and teachers. Although signs of mental illness do not guarantee that a person is suicidal, they can provide valuable warning signs.

Some warning signs of mental illness and suicidal ideation include:

1. A noticeable shift in behavior

Early mental illness often manifests as a noticeable shift in behavior. Perhaps the student has been acting differently lately – maybe he or she is more socially reserved than usual or performing poorly in school. Maybe the student is getting less sleep or eating less food. These subtle – or not so subtle – shifts in behavior may be indicative of mental illness.

2. Elevated mood after a period of depression

When people are so depressed that they cannot get out of bed, they are unlikely to commit suicide. When people with depression suddenly start getting active again, however, parents and teachers should be on the lookout. Severe depression often zaps away motivation, and if that motivation returns, the risk of suicide increases.

3. Low self-esteem

Individuals with severe depression frequently suffer from low self-esteem. They might constantly put themselves down or focus on feelings of inadequacy. They might seem dejected and sad. When teenagers let you know that they don’t feel good about themselves, believe them. Don’t assume that they are over-exaggerating or fishing for attention.

4. Low social support

In a 2009 study published in the journal Archives of Suicide Research, low levels of social support were highly associated with suicide ideation in college. In other words, students who did not have a strong support network were more likely to strongly consider suicide than students who did have a strong support network. This support network can include friends, families and significant others. Students with few or no close relationships are at a greater risk of suicide.

These are only a few examples of behaviors that may indicate suicide risk. For a more extensive list, please visit the Mayo Clinic website.

What to do

What should teachers or parents do if they suspect that a teenager is suicidal?

The answer is simple: Ask.

Despite the common myth, asking people if they are suicidal does not plant the idea in their head. Asking this straight-forward question – even if the teen doesn’t respond – provides the teenager with an outlet for future conversations. When discussing suicidal behavior, it’s important to act concerned – not challenging or judgmental.

The only thing that can truly possibly halt suicidal ideation, however, is professional help. If you suspect that a teen is considering suicide, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. White River Academy is a therapeutic school for troubled boys located in Delta, Utah. All students who attend White River Academy are provided with an individualized education plan with professional guidance to help them gain control of their lives. For more information or to register, feel free to call 866-520-0905.

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