When Graham Moore won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game, no one could have imagined his speech would include mentions of depression and consideration of suicide. But it did, and it sent an inspiring message to young people and their parents.
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The adolescent years are challenging for everyone at some point. However, Graham Moore’s story is a recent reminder that, for some teens, it can also be an emotionally difficult time filled with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair. The stresses of high school and the mental and emotional stage of adolescence can combine with risk factors for suicide, such as depression, and increase the risk of suicide for some teens. Armed with knowledge of risks, protective factors, and treatment options, parents can be a crucial component in suicide prevention.
And before parents think the information doesn’t apply to them or their children, they should consider the following:
- According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death among children, teens, and young adults ages 10 to 24. About 4,600 young people die by suicide each year.
- Every year, approximately 157,000 youth are brought to emergency rooms to receive treatment for injuries inflicted while attempting suicide.
- A recent national survey of 9-12 grades revealed that in the 12 months preceding the survey:
- Almost 16 percent of high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide
- 13 percent of high school students had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide
- 8 percent of high school students had attempted suicide one or more times
- While suicide affects all youth, some groups are at greater risk than others are.
- 81 percent of the deaths were males and 19 percent were females.
- Girls are more likely to report attempting suicide than boys.
- Native American/Alaskan Native youth having the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities. Hispanic youth were more likely to report attempting suicide than their black and white, non-Hispanic peers.
- Reports of suicide attempts are two to six times more frequent among youth who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, than among heterosexual youth
Knowledge Aids Suicide Prevention
When a young person dies by suicide, it has a devastating ripple effect on a community. Friends and family, teachers and peers, are left struggling to cope and understand what could lead a young person to take his or her own life. The causes of suicide are complex. Many, if not most people are uncomfortable talking about suicide. Unfortunately, suicide is still stigmatized and it is common for the victim to be blamed. Which makes it that much harder for individuals to speak openly or seek help. Education is critical to combat the stigma. Learning more about suicide – the warning signs and how to help someone in need -may prevent a future tragedy.
While we may never know what led to one individual’s death by suicide, it’s most commonly linked to a mental health disorder such as depression. There are effective treatments to help people in psychological distress. Research over the last several decades has shed light on the causes of suicide and on prevention strategies.
Despite this progress, many at-risk teens do not get needed treatment, including an estimated two-thirds of those with depression. This is often because neither teens nor the adults who are close to them recognize the symptoms as a treatable illness or they fear what the treatment might involve.
Common barriers to treatment include:
- Belief that nothing can help
- Perception that seeking help is a sign of weakness or failure
- Feeling too embarrassed to seek help
- Belief that adults aren’t receptive to teens’ mental health problems
However, treatment can be and often is effective. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, some depressed teens show improvement in four to six weeks with structured psychotherapy alone. Most others experience significant reduction of depressive symptoms with antidepressant medication. Supplementary interventions, such as exercise, yoga, breathing exercises, and changes in diet, improve mood, relieve anxiety and reduce stress that contributes to depression. Medication is usually essential in treating severe depression, and other serious mental disorders (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.)
Risk Factors & Protective Factors
Risk factors increase the probability of negative outcomes for youth. Suicide risk factors are those characteristics associated with suicide. These are not necessarily direct causes. Typically, it is a combination of factors that contribute to suicide. They include:
- Family history of depression, mental illness, or suicide
- Previous suicide attempt(s)
- Depression, mental illness and substance abuse
- Access to lethal means such as guns
- Impulsive or aggressive tendencies (e.g. fighting)
- Community epidemic of suicide
- Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
- Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
- Situational crisis such as a loss or family stress
- Easy access to lethal methods
In addition, an unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders, or to suicidal thoughts, can be a risk factor.
Protective factors promote positive outcomes. Protective factors may safeguard individuals from suicidal thoughts and behavior. Protective factors are those that boost resilience, promoting healthy development, coping skills and mitigate risk factors. They include:
- Access to effective mental health and other intervention services and support to access services
- Strong family, peer, and community connections and support
- Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
- Skills in problem solving and conflict resolution
- Restricted access to guns and other means of suicide
- Suicide notes
- Death or suicidal themes in artwork and writing
- Indirect or direct threats of suicide
- Self-harming behavior
- Risk-taking behavior
- Withdrawal or loss of interest in activities and friends
Other warning signs include changes in the following areas:
- Mood (e.g. irritability, inability to concentrate, angry outbursts, impulsivity, etc.)
- Eating patterns
- Sleeping patterns
- School achievement
- School attendance
- Personal hygiene or dress
- These are indicators that something may be going wrong and may require further assessment by a professional.
Tips for Parents
The National Association of School Psychologists provides resources and guidance on a range of topics including suicide prevention. The following Tips for Parents is taken from their Times of Tragedy: Preventing Suicide in Troubled Children and Youth.
- Know the warning signs!
- Do not be afraid to talk to your child. Talking to your children about suicide will not put thoughts into their head. In fact, all available evidence indicates that talking to your child lowers the risk of suicide. The message is, “Suicide is not an option, and help is available.”
- Suicide-proof your home. Make the knives, pills and, above all, the firearms inaccessible.
- Utilize school and community resources. This can include your school psychologist, school counselor or social worker, suicide prevention groups or hotlines, or private mental health professionals.
- Take immediate action. If your child indicates he/she is contemplating suicide, or if your gut instinct tells you they might hurt themselves, get help. Do not leave your child alone. Even if he denies “meaning it,” stay with him. Reassure him. Seek professional help. If necessary, drive your child to the hospital’s emergency room to ensure that he or she is in a safe environment until a psychiatric evaluation can be completed.
- Listen to your child’s friends. They may give hints that they are worried about their friend but may be uncomfortable telling you directly. Be open. Ask questions.
References & Resources
- Center for Disease Control (CDC) Suicide: Risk and Protective Factors
- National Association of School Psychologists
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- National Association of Social Workers
- National Association of School Psychologists
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or visit on the web.
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