Recognizing the Warning Signs
Suicide and other self-destructive behaviors rarely occur
without some warning signs. You, perhaps even more than parents of teens, can
assess what is "normal" adolescent behavior and what may be an
indication that something is wrong.
Here are some signs that a young person may be considering
- A suddenly
deteriorating academic performance. Teens who were typically
conscientious about their school work and who are now neglecting
assignments, cutting classes, or missing school altogether may be
experiencing problems that can affect their academic success, behavior,
and health and put them at risk of suicide.
Some young people resort to cutting their arms or legs with razor blades
and other sharp objects to cope with emotional pain. Self-mutilation of
this type is an unmistakable sign that something is wrong.
- A fixation with death
or violence. Teens may express this fixation through poetry,
essays, doodling, or other artwork. They may be preoccupied with violent
movies, video games, and music, or fascinated with weapons.
- Unhealthy peer
relationships. Teens whose circle of friends dramatically changes
for no apparent reason, who don't have friends, or who begin associating
with other young people known for substance abuse or other risk behaviors
may signal a change in their emotional lives. Their destructive behaviors
may discourage more stable friends from associating with them, or they
themselves may reject former friends who "don't understand [them] any
- Volatile mood swings
or a sudden change in personality. Students who become sullen,
silent, and withdrawn, or angry and acting out, may have problems that can
lead to suicide.
- Indications that the
student is in an unhealthy, destructive, or abusive relationship.
This can include abusive relationships with peers or family members. Signs
of an abusive relationship include unexplained bruises, a swollen face, or
other injuries, particularly if the student refuses to discuss them.
- Risk-taking behaviors.
Risk-taking behaviors often co-occur and are symptomatic of underlying
emotional or social problems. Such behaviors as unprotected or promiscuous
sex, alcohol or other drug use, driving recklessly or without a license,
petty theft, or vandalism, especially by young people who formerly did not
engage in these activities, can be an indication that something is wrong.
- Signs of an eating
disorder. An eating disorder is an unmistakable sign that a
student needs help. A dramatic change in weight that is not associated
with a medically supervised diet may also indicate that something is
- Difficulty in
adjusting to gender identity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgendered teens have higher suicide attempt rates than their
heterosexual peers. While coming to terms with gender identity can be
challenging for many young people, gay and lesbian youth face social
pressures that can make this adjustment especially difficult.
Children and adolescents who are bullied, as well as those who bully, are
at increased risk of depression and suicidal ideation (Kaltiala-Heino,
Rimpela, Marttunen, Rimpela, & Rantanen, 1999).
Although most people who are clinically depressed do not attempt suicide,
depression significantly increases the risk of suicide or suicide
attempts. Symptoms of depression include the following:
- A sudden worsening in
- Withdrawal from
friends and extracurricular activities
- Expressions of sadness
and hopelessness, or anger and rage
- A sudden decline in
enthusiasm and energy
- Overreaction to
- Lowered self-esteem,
or feelings of guilt
- Indecision, lack of
concentration, and forgetfulness
- Restlessness and
- Changes in eating or
- Unprovoked episodes of
- Sudden neglect of appearance
- The abuse of alcohol
or other drugs as young people try to "self-medicate" their
Some warning signs of suicide demand immediate action:
- Talking or writing about
suicide or death
- Giving direct verbal cues,
such as "I wish I were dead" and "I'm going to end it
- Giving less direct verbal
cues, such as "You will be better off without me," "What's
the point of living?", "Soon you won't have to worry about
me," and "Who cares if I'm dead, anyway?"
- Isolating him- or herself
from friends and family
- Expressing the belief that
life is meaningless
- Giving away prized
- Exhibiting a sudden and
unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed or withdrawn
- Neglecting his or her
appearance and hygiene
- Dropping out of school or
social, athletic, and/or community activities
- Obtaining a weapon (such as a
firearm) or another means of hurting him- or herself (such as prescription