Kids and Suicide: Know the Warning Signs and How to Help - Promise

Kids and Suicide: Know the Warning Signs and How to Help

Between the show “13 Reasons Why” and recent celebrity deaths, suicide has been a popular topic lately. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death among school-age youth. But it often can be prevented, and knowing the risk factors and signs can be a lifesaver.

Youth Suicide Statistics: Cause for Concern

According to the CDC’s recently released 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 17.2% of 9th–12th grade students seriously considered attempting suicide in 2017. Those numbers have been on the rise over the past 10 years.

Children with mental illness are at a higher risk for suicide. In fact, 9 in 10 teens who take their own lives were previously diagnosed with a mental health condition or disorder — more than half of them with a mood disorder like depression.

Teen girls are four times more likely to experience depression, and teen boys (especially those with behavioral problems) are more likely to actually complete suicide.

Look for the Signs

If you notice any of these happening in your child’s life, take it seriously, have a discussion with your child, and be ready to take action to seek help:

  • mental illness/depression (frequent sadness and feelings of hopelessness/helplessness)
  • bullying, peer or social pressure, public humiliation or rejection
  • major loss like a death or break-up and/or exposure to violence
  • changes in their typical behavior patterns such as:
    • withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
    • decline in quality of schoolwork
    • aggressive, disruptive, or impulsive behavior
    • changes in eating or sleeping habits
    • physical symptoms often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, and/or severe chronic pain or medical condition

Act Fast to Save a Life

If you see or hear about any of the following with your child, follow up with immediate action to ensure their safety:

  • direct or indirect threats or statements like: “I’m going to kill myself” or “I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up again.”
  • suicide notes and plans, which may include postings online or on social media
  • making final arrangements like funeral preparations, writing a will or obituary, or giving away prized possessions
  • prior suicidal behavior along with any of the above happening now

If your child is showing any of these warning signs, have a conversation with them as soon as possible. Keep the following in mind:

  • Try to stay calm.
  • Ask your child directly if they’re considering suicide.
  • Seek professional help right away — school and mental health resources, including 24-hour crisis intervention services.
  • Remove all weapons or firearms from the home to reduce risk.
  • Don’t judge.
  • Let your child know that they’re not alone and that many people feel sad, depressed, or anxious now and then, including parents.
  • Provide constant supervision — do not leave your child home alone.
  • Support your child through counseling or other treatment.

Seeing your child struggle is hard for any parent. Remember that your immediate reaction should be to comfort them, so try to remain calm and supportive. And be available to listen, whether your child is talking directly, indirectly, or not at all.

Get Help

Remember that depression and suicidal feelings are treatable. Children at risk for suicide need to have their concerns evaluated, recognized, diagnosed, and treated with a comprehensive plan.

Use these resources to help support you and your child in these important situations:

  • your child’s doctor
  • mental health services (your doctor can provide a referral)
  • your state’s 24-hour crisis services/center or priority response team
  • the nearest emergency room
  • emergency services (911)
  • the suicide prevention lifeline, available anytime, 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255
Cami R. Winkelspecht, PhD

About Cami R. Winkelspecht, PhD


Dr. Winkelspecht is a child psychologist and clinical director with the Division of Pediatric Behavioral Health at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.