4 Steps you can take to help prevent teen suicide

Empathetic adult comforts crying teen who holds her phone despondently.
Starting a respectful, nonjudgemental, compassionate conversation—even if it feels uncomfortable at first—can be life-saving.

Suicide is worth taking seriously. It is preventable, but it is also the second-leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24 in the US. Nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

What’s more, for those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bi-sexual, that number is closer to 46.8%, per a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

All could go on to live rich, satisfying lives full of joy and love. Yet, supportive adults and professional help may be necessary to enable someone at risk of suicide to truly believe that once again. With the right tools and help, you may be able to make a difference in the life of a teen you know.

"A reason why the risk is so much higher in children, teens, and young adults is related to development,” says Rose Hitchings, PsyD, a member of Cheshire Medical Center’s integrated behavioral health team that works with many adolescents and teens.

"Our brains do not reach full maturity until the mid-20s," she says. "From a biological perspective, when the pre-frontal cortex—the front part of the brain—is not fully developed, we are more impulsive. When the amygdala—the area in the brain that holds emotions—is activated, the front of the brain can’t keep up, and this creates behavior that is reckless and impulsive. It is hard to think of the future in these moments."

It is vitally important for parents, grandparents, and others to check in with teens regularly to see how they’re doing, especially if they display noticeable changes in behavior or mood.

Parents and grandparents needn’t fear that talking about depression or suicide could somehow spur suicide or other self-harming behavior. “You won’t plant the seed,” Hitchings says.

The best prevention is to ask—and listen.

“You know your child better than anyone else,” Hitchings says. “We all have ups and downs. But sometimes it is more than that, and they need help.”

Know the warning signs

If a young person has expressed they don’t want to live anymore or makes life-ending statements, that’s obviously a sign that you should seek professional help. (See the resources at the bottom of this page.) Other warning signs may not be as obvious, so it’s important to know what to look for:

  • Talking about wanting to die or not live anymore 
  • Looking for a way to take self-harming action, such as searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about:
    • Feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
    • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
    • Being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Extreme mood swings  

What to do when talking with someone who may be considering suicide

If you suspect something may be going on with a teen in your life, starting the conversation—even if it feels uncomfortable at first—can be a life-saving conversation.

But be sure to listen with respect and empathy without judgment.

For example, say, “I’ve noticed you’re sleeping in lately,” instead of “Why are you sleeping so much lately?”  

They may say they want their privacy and don’t want you controlling them. But ask the questions anyway.  

Instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” try saying, “Are you OK?” or “What is going on for you right now?”  

Make sure to listen and respond empathetically. Be sure not to minimize or downplay their thoughts or feelings.  

Offer: “If you’re not OK, what is going on in your life right now that is making you feel sad?” and “How can I help?”

More examples of things TO say

  • “I am sorry you are feeling so bad.”
  • “We will get through this together.”
  • “I am going to get help.”

More examples of things to NOT say

  • “You are too good for that.”
  • “Don’t think that way over a boy/girl/person.”
  • “You are so dramatic.”  

It is vitally important for parents, grandparents, and others to check in with teens regularly to see how they’re doing, especially if they display noticeable changes in behavior or mood.

Rose Hitchings, PsyD

Make the home a safer environment

Here are some simple steps you can take today to make your home safer for someone who may be thinking about suicide: 

  • Possible weapons: While locking guns up may feel safe; removing them from the home entirely promotes safety (bullets, too). This would include possibly reducing access to knives, sharp gardening tools, power tools, or farming equipment.
  • Make sure that over-the-counter and prescription medications are locked up or stored away from the person's access. If necessary, consider putting all medications into a lock box and keeping the key with an adult caregiver.  
  • Monitor common household chemicals (paint thinner, gasoline, cleaning products) and store these out of the person's access, monitoring their levels.
  • Identify a list of settings that can provide a distraction during a stressful situation (movies, games, TV or a DVD; books, diary, or journal).
  • Make a plan to create a “Hope Box” that can remind your teen that life is balanced with positive moments, such as a letter to self from when not feeling suicidal, photos or souvenirs from favorite vacation spots, images of family members, children’s artwork, etc.

Getting professional help

Make a list of people your teen would feel comfortable talking to—perhaps a counselor or minister—to have on hand. Make sure the hotline number is readily accessible in an emergency.  

“One of the first things you can do as a person caring for a teen with signs of suicide risk (or really at any moment) is to provide hope,” Hitchings says. “Difficult times do not last forever. They are not alone. This reassurance will help a child or teen feel you will support them.”

If there are non-life-threatening questions about your child’s emotional or behavioral health, you may contact your primary care provider or pediatrician’s office at Cheshire. Nurses will help put you in contact with a behavioral health consultant.  

For mental health emergencies, go to the closest emergency department and/or call 911.  

The below resources are additionally helpful:

Sources: 988lifeline.org, zerosuicide.org