Editor’s note: This article originally ran February 3, 2020, and was updated August 24, 2022.
Teen mental health has been at a crisis point for years, and the pandemic only made things worse.
Even before COVID-19, the adolescent suicide rate had reached its highest point since 2000, increasing more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2017 in the United States. The increase in the suicide rate was especially pronounced among teenage boys ages 15 to 19. Early research indicates that the stress, isolation and grief of the pandemic may have exacerbated these disturbing trends.
The statistics are scary, but parents can help their children navigate these difficult years, says UNC psychologist Samantha Pflum, PhD, who specializes in treating children and adolescents.
“One of the most important things is knowing that many youth, regardless of what their life circumstances are, are at risk,” she says.
She suggests six things parents can do to help prevent teen suicide.
1. Be aware of the problem.
Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are major risk factors for suicide, but a teenager doesn’t have to have a mental health diagnosis to be in danger. Major life changes and traumas—including romantic breakups, parents getting divorced and a history of abuse—can increase risk, as can grief and financial instability, both so prevalent during the pandemic.
There is also an increased risk for youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, not because of anything inherent about these identities but because of the difficulty of facing discrimination and prejudice, Dr. Pflum says.
2. Know the warning signs, and know that they aren’t the same for everyone.
Teenagers struggling with suicidal thoughts might exhibit one or more of the following signs. Not all these signs need to be present for suicide to be a threat.
- Withdrawal from family or social groups.
- A change in school attendance or performance.
- Reduced personal hygiene, such as no longer taking showers.
- A change in energy level, either becoming lethargic and sleeping all the time or being unusually energetic.
- Talking about feeling hopeless; showing a lack of enthusiasm for the future.
- Risky or reckless behavior that is atypical for them, including reckless driving, substance use and unsafe sex.
- Erratic use of medication, particularly psychiatric medication, including skipping doses or taking too much.
- Self-harm behaviors such as cutting and burning.
- Talking about suicide or researching suicide methods online.
3. Listen to your teenager and validate his or her emotions.
There’s a perception that adolescents are dramatic and manipulative, and their problems are less serious than adults. This is wrong, Dr. Pflum says, and it’s important for parents to validate their children’s concerns.
“Say ‘tell me more about how you’re feeling,’ rather than ‘everyone has a hard time as a teenager,’ or ‘you’ll get over it,’” Dr. Pflum says.
Dr. Pflum often talks to teenagers who either feel their feelings are dismissed by their parents or that they need to keep quiet to avoid putting strain on the family.
“They may feel hopeless and isolated, or believe that no one understands what they’re going through,” she says.
She recommends this language for a parent: “We’re in this together. You’re not a burden to me. I am here for you. Let’s get help.” Spending extra time doing activities with your teen, such as playing video games or cooking, can also signal that you’re there for them.
4. Seek professional help.
Parents can play a crucial role in preventing teen suicide, but a teenager at risk needs professional help. If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, talk to your pediatrician, who can help find a therapist or prescribe psychiatric medications, if needed. A school counselor or psychologist is also a good place to start.
It can be hard to know when a person is in immediate danger of suicide, but Dr. Pflum tells parents to err on the side of caution and to trust their own sense of how their child is doing.
“If they have concerns that the child is talking about suicide, expressing a lot of hopelessness, or has trouble identifying reasons for living, it would be a good time to seek help immediately,” she says.
In those cases, parents can drive their teenager to an emergency department or call 911.
5. Don’t be afraid to say the word “suicide.”
If you have concerns about your teenager’s safety, just come right out and ask them if they’re thinking about suicide, Dr. Pflum says.
“There is a myth that if you talk about suicide or talk about self-harm, you’ll encourage those behaviors,” she says. “But we know that’s not the case. In fact, the teen may feel comfortable talking about those subjects and know that it’s not taboo.”
6. Don’t forget the threats at home.
Parents who are worried their children could attempt suicide will want to remove firearms from the home or at least ensure they are locked (though teenagers often know how to access what their parents believe to be secured property). Knives and other sharp objects should be secured as well. Lock away prescription or other medications in a locked medicine drawer or cabinet.
A teenager’s phone, computer and other devices also can worsen mental health problems, Dr. Pflum says, particularly in online communities where suicide plans or methods are discussed.
“We see a lot of teens taking on the troubles and problems of their peers, and that can be challenging or triggering for youth,” she says.
That doesn’t mean you should forbid your child from going on the internet, which will only isolate him or her and restrict what might be helpful support—there are many positive communities online, too.
Parents can encourage teens to tap into healthy communities online and in person that relate to their interests or identities; for example, she knows of a local book club for young adults who identify as neurodiverse.
“Parents can help by maintaining an open dialogue with their teen about their social media or other internet use, and can be there for support if their teen experiences cyberbullying or other negative interactions,” she says.
If you’re worried a teenager you love is suicidal, get help immediately by calling 911 or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline—just call or text 988 on your phone, or use the chat feature on their website. For non-emergency situations, you can find a therapist for your child.