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Depressed and Dying

Teen suicide is rising at alarming rates. In fact, according to a recent survey, 13.6 per cent of surveyed high school students in the US and a whopping 46 per cent of surveyed high school students in Canada have created a plan to die. Here’s how to spot the signs of depression and suicidal thoughts in your teens, so you can get them help before it’s too late.

By Dr. Allison Forti

Every day, we turn on the news or log on to our social media and see stories of teen suicide. Our children are killing themselves more and more every day. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of teen suicide have steadily risen in the U.S. since 2007 from 9.7 deaths per 100,000 to 13.15 deaths per 100,000 for ages 15-24. This alarming trend also reveals increases in suicidal ideation and behaviour. According to the latest Youth Risk Behaviour Survey, which is conducted every two years during the spring semester and provides data representative of Grade 9 through Grade 12 students in public and private schools throughout the United States, 31.5 per cent of high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness daily for two or more weeks over the past year. The same survey revealed 17.2 per cent of high school students have considered suicide, 13.6 per cent have created a plan for suicide, and 2.4 per cent have actually injured themselves in suicide attempts.

In Canada, our teens are faring no better. Kids Help Phone surveyed 1,319 teens aged 13 to 18 across the country. The finding were published in a report called “Teens Talk 2016,” and included this alarming statistic — 22 per cent of those who responded, seriously considered attempting suicide in the last 12 months. Moreover, 46 per cent had formulated a plan with girls (67 per cent) being twice as likely as boys (33 per cent) to consider taking their own lives.

Being aware of the signs of suicidal ideation may help parents protect their teens. Teens most at risk for suicide are those with a past history of substance abuse and mental illness (e.g., depression). If you think your teen might be depressed, it’s important to get him or her the help she or he needs. Here are eight signs to look out for if your teen is at risk for suicide.

Withdrawal from family and friends

Depressed teens may reduce or stop interacting with friends or family. Be aware if your child no longer texts messages or uses social media to communicate with friends. Teens may also reduce their face-to-face interactions with friends by pulling back from activities (e.g., deciding to quit the soccer team, not signing up for the debate team).

Drastic changes in personality

Parents may notice that their once conscientious or perfectionistic child seems indifferent to disappointments (e.g., low grades, not getting the part in the play, a parent is late picking them up from school). A laidback or bubbly child may suddenly become more irritable and lash out at family members, friends, or teachers with criticisms or sharp words.

Changes in school performance or lower grades

Depressed teens may no longer have the energy, ability to focus, or motivation to focus on school. This oftentimes results in lower grades.

Appearing distracted, irritable, extremely moody, or agitated

Depressed teens may not present in the same way as adults. Their sadness and hopelessness may be masked by agitation or moodiness. Rather than expressing their feelings through crying or appearing down, they may “give attitude” or yell at family, friends, and teachers.

Talking, writing, or drawing about death or suicide

Depressed teens who are experiencing suicidal ideation or in the process of creating a suicide plan may drop subtle hints of their thoughts or seem to have a preoccupation with death. Sometimes this is done in a joking manner. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I jumped out of the car right now? Then I wouldn’t have to take my math test today!” They may post memes on social media about death or suicide or post thoughts about musicians or famous people who have committed suicide. They may also bring their thoughts up candidly. “Sometimes I think everyone would be happier in the family if I wasn’t here.”

Giving away prized possessions

Notice if your child gives away items of sentimental or economic value. “Here, you can have my laptop. I won’t need it anymore.” “I’d like you to have the bracelet Dad gave me on my 16th birthday. Someone in the family should still have this.”

Noticeable change in eating or sleeping habits

You may notice that your teen skips dinner and tells you they just want to hang out in their bedroom. Conversely, you may notice they start eating more than usual, especially refined carbohydrates or foods with high sugar content. They may say things like, “Mom, I’m too tired to eat now. I’ll eat later.” They also may struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. You may hear them up at night when everyone in the family is asleep. They may also sleep more than usual. Sleeping through their alarm clocks, telling you they are too tired to go to school, sleeping all weekend, going to bed earlier than the rest of the family are signs their sleep habits are disrupted.

Rebellious behaviours

You may notice your child increases their alcohol or drug use, runs away from home, engages in sexual promiscuity, or changes their style of dress to provoke a reaction.

Parents should talk to their teens exhibiting any of these signs. Talking or inquiring about suicide does not increase the likelihood of suicidal ideation or put the idea in your child’s mind. In fact, teens can view parental involvement as a supportive gesture. If your teen does not want to talk with you about how they are feeling, then encourage them to talk with another trusted adult (e.g., a favourite teacher, school counselor or coach). Alternative options for support include making an appointment with a licensed professional counselor or another mental health provider. If your teen is in imminent danger of hurting themselves, seek help at your local hospital emergency department.

Dr. Allison Forti is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University and an expert in holistic wellness and quality of life, resiliency and self-compassion.

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