Teen Suicide Risk Factors: Parents Are Too Often Clueless

Parents fail to recognize suicide risk in drinking, drug use.


Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers, and it's a tragedy that can be prevented. Given that almost 15 percent of high school students say they've seriously considered suicide in the past year, parents and friends need to know how to recognize when a teenager is in trouble and how to help.

Parents can be clueless when it comes to recognizing suicide risk factors, or at least more clueless than teens. In a new survey of teenagers and parents in Chicago and in the Kansas City, Kan., area, which appears online in Pediatrics, both parents and teenagers said that teen suicide was a problem, but not in their community. Alas, teen suicide is a universal problem; no area is immune.

The teenagers correctly said that drug and alcohol use was a big risk factor for suicide, with some even noting that drinking and drug use could be a form of self-medication or self-harm. By contrast, many of the parents shrugged off substance abuse as acceptable adolescent behavior. As one parent told the researchers: "Some parents smoke pot with their kids or allow their kids to drink."

Both teenagers and parents said that guns should be kept away from a suicidal teen. But since parents said they didn't think they could determine when a teenager was suicidal, parents should routinely lock up firearms, the researchers suggest. That makes sense. Firearms are used in 43.1 percent of teen suicides, according to 2006 data, while suffocation or hanging accounts for 44.9 percent.

The good news: Both parents and teenagers in this small survey (66 teenagers and 30 parents) said they'd like more help learning how to know when someone is at risk of committing suicide and what to do. Schools and pediatricians should be able to help, but we can all become better educated through reliable resources on the Web. These authoritative sites list typical signs of suicide risk, and they also provide questions a parent or a friend can ask a teenager to find out if he is considering killing himself. Here are good places to start:

  • The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists signs and symptoms of suicidal thinking, such as saying things like "I won't be a problem for you much longer."
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to ask the child directly about suicide. "Getting the word out in the open may help your teenager think someone has heard his cries for help."
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free advice to someone considering suicide, as well as to friends and relatives, at 800-273-TALK.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness's teenage suicide page makes the point that talking with someone about suicide will not "give them the idea." "Bringing up the question of suicide and discussing it without showing shock or disapproval is one of the most helpful things you can do," the NAMI site says. "This openness shows that you are taking the individual seriously and responding to the severity of his or her distress."