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


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

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the lives of our children in many ways:  adapting to online learning, navigating the “new normal” when heading back to school, rescheduling and cancelling of school events, and creating feelings of social isolation. These restrictions have negatively influenced some of our kids’ mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death among school-age youth. But often it can be prevented, and by knowing the risk factors and signs, it can be a lifesaver.

Youth Suicide Statistics: Cause for Concern

According to the CDC, during 2020, mental health–related emergency room (ER) visits among adolescents ages 12–17 increased 31% compared to 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, suicide attempts also increased for adolescents, especially girls.

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 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:

  • depression/anxiety (frequent sadness and feelings of hopelessness/helplessness)
  • irritability/anger/hostility
  • frequent tearfulness or crying
  • bullying, peer or social pressure, or public humiliation
  • extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • 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 or low energy

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”
    • “I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up again.”
    • “I can’t deal with this anymore.”
    • “I want this to all go away.”
  • suicide notes, which may include postings online or on social media
  • having a plan
  • 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 and if they have a plan.
  • 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
Leah Orchinik, PhD

Leah Orchinik, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist at Nemours Children's Hospital in Wilmington, Del.