Adolescent and Teen Suicide Sparked by the Pandemic

Since the outbreak of COVID, suicide rates in young people has risen. Thoughts of suicide for an adolescent or teen can be frightening. Not taking these thoughts seriously can have devastating outcomes. There is an effective treatment for suicidal thoughts and the depression and anxiety that precipitates it.

One of the most heart-wrenching losses for any parent is the death of their own child. When the loss is due to suicide, the heartbreaking pain can be even more intense. For many, there are feelings of guilt, constant thoughts of “what if”, and an overwhelming sense of ‘failure’ that adds so much more to the grieving process. It’s simply an unbearable devastation for any parent to have to experience.

In spring of 2021, during the midst of the ongoing COVID pandemic, A CDC study found there was a 51 percent increase in suicide attempts by adolescent girls. Suicide is the second leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 19. A previous CDC report indicates suicide rates for adolescents had been gradually increasing since 2007. Between 2007 and 2015, the suicide rate for adolescent females (15 to 19 years of age) doubled, and suicide rates for males in the same age group had gone up by 30%.

While adolescent suicide has been on the rise for decades, the number of suicides and suicide attempts during the pandemic are alarming. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this age group. Adolescent and teens are emotionally fragile, and are not yet equipped to deal with the pressures of the world. For those who lack emotional support, the burdens can be even heavier, and they are much more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Risk Factors Associated with Adolescent and Teen Suicide

There are generally specific warning signs for those teens who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Sadly, the warning signs can be easily overlooked and mistaken for typical adolescent or teenage behavior. Those most vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and behaviors are those who already suffer from depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, many who suffer from a mental health conditions have never been diagnosed and have never sought treatment. This is where a parent would need to be even more vigilant of the signs of depression or anxiety, as well as the warning signs of suicidal thoughts. It can be a double-edged sword, and parents who educate themselves about mental health and the symptoms associated with these conditions can facilitate treatment and intervention with their child before tragedy occurs.

Aside from depression and anxiety, there are a number of other conditions that can put your child at a greater risk for suicidal thoughts. This include:

  • Gender identity disorder (more prevalent today than ever before)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Substance Use Disorder
  • Eating disorders (anorexia or bulimia)
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders

Other risk factors might include any of the following:

  • Loss of a loved loved one, such as family member or friend
  • Loss a pet
  • Loss of a home
  • Parents divorcing
  • Bullying
  • Parent diagnosed with a terminal illness
  • Abuse
  • Trouble at school with grades
  • Too much pressure to perform at high expectations (grades, athletics, etc.)
  • Peer pressure and social media

Other risk factors are mental health problems that run in the family, such as a parent struggling with depression or substance abuse. A family history of suicide can also increase the risk of adolescent or teenage suicide. In today’s society, the younger generation is more prone to struggle with gender identity. This can create a lot of turmoil in a young mind that can be quite overwhelming for a child to deal with. If a child is struggling with sexual identity and feels they have no support, this puts them at a greater risk for suicide.

Signs to Watch For that May Indicate Suicidal Thoughts in your Child

Disengagement from family or friends, lack of joy, sadness, changes in mood, sleeping more than usual, engaging in risky behaviors, isolating, or comments about death or suicide are all signs that indicate something is ‘wrong’. Any changes from their ‘normal’ behavior should warrant concern and the need for engagement.

Of course it is impossible to predict whether or not your child will become suicidal. However, when you see the warning signs it is better to assume they could become suicidal as opposed to saying, “my child would never do that”.

But there are also things in a teen’s life that may help protect them from suicide. For one thing, kids who feel loved and supported are less likely to think about suicide. That also goes for kids who are good problem solvers. Having access to good healthcare and mental health care is an important plus. And having parents who are willing to get help when their kid needs it is huge.

While some adolescents, especially girls, can be very emotional and tend to wear their hearts on their sleeve, most tend to refrain from sharing their thoughts and feelings. For those contemplating suicide, they are more likely to try and hide their feelings from everyone. In fact, some may seem like the life of the party when around friends, yet they are suffering inside. It can often be a challenge to recognize the suffering, as many adolescents will go to great lengths to hide how they really feel. Questions from loved one, such as “How are feeling?”, are “Is everything OK?” are generally met with a typical “I’m fine” and forced smile, or “Will you please stop asking me that”.

The following is a list of the many warning signs that your adolescent or teenager may be contemplating suicide:

  • Change in mood or moodiness
  • Seeming sad or depressed for an extended period (more than a couple weeks)
  • Decline in school performance
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, sports, or friends
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Isolating in room more than usual
  • Frequent complaints of feelings tired, stomach aches, headaches, body aches
  • Use of drugs or problems with alcohol
  • Decline in personal hygiene
  • Engagement in reckless or dangerous behaviors
  • Giving away things that were once important to them (clothes, jewelry, collectibles, etc.)
  • Difficult getting over the loss of a loved one, pet, boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Trouble at school
  • Writing suicide notes or making death or suicide comments
  • Changes in appetite

Teens also make comments that should spark concern. These may include any of the following:

  • “My life is over anyway”
  • “Maybe I should just kill myself”
  • “I don’t fear death”
  • “I’m sure the world would be better off without me”
  • “I doubt anyone would miss me if I was gone”
  • “I hate my life”
  • “I just wish I was dead”
  • “I’m just a burden anyway”
  • “No one really care anyway”
  • “I hate life”
  • “Life sucks anyway”
  • “I’m worthless”
  • “There’s really no hope so what’s the point”

It’s important to understand the above statements may not be verbal to a parent, loved one, or friend. Rather, teens often make these types of comments on social media, via text, in an email, or even written in a journal or notebook. These types of statements should never be taken lightly.

First Steps to Getting Your Adolescent or Teen the Help they Need

Teens grappling with suicidal thoughts need all the support they can get.  As a parent, there are several things you can do to help your teen feel understood, valued, and less alone.  They include:

  • If you own any weapons, make sure they are either secured under lock and key or removed from the home
  • Make time to make yourself available to listen to your teen; let your teen know you’re truly there for him or her
  • Don’t assume your teen’s suicidal behaviors are attention-seeking ploys
  • Take an active role in your teen’s treatment
  • Be willing to listen – really listen – to your teen, without judgment and with genuine and compassion
  • Remember, especially when interacting with your teen, that his or her suicidal thoughts are not an indication of weakness or a lack of faith
  • Learn everything you can about your child’s mental health, if it’s been determined he or she has a disorder (or disorders) that may be fueling the suicidal thoughts
  • Don’t pressure your teen to talk to you about his or her feelings
  • Be very careful to not minimize, criticize, dismiss, or ridicule what your teen is going through
  • Avoid nagging or lecturing your teen regarding his or her suicidal thoughts
  • Strive to stay calm, even though you may feel very scared, when talking to your child
  • Respect what your teen’s going through, even if you can’t relate or understand
  • Encourage your teen to practice healthy, new coping skills at home
  • Understand that self-harm behaviors typically aren’t suicide attempts; however, always take any type of self-harm seriously and, ideally, work with your child’s therapist to determine what the underlying issue is
  • Respect your teen’s privacy; don’t talk to everyone about his or her suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Don’t so may exacerbate the problem by contributing further to your teen’s shame, embarrassment, guilt, and other painful feelings
  • Make sure your actions and words show that you love your teen unconditionally
  • Strive to create a supportive and peaceful atmosphere at home
  • Work with a therapist individually or as a family to address any parenting or family dynamics that may be contributing to your child’s suicidal thoughts

What to Do When Things Escalate

Thoughts of suicide may linger for long periods or they may quickly escalate to actively planning how to follow through. The most important thing to do when you suspect your child may be suffering from a mental health condition or suicidal thoughts is to get them help immediately. Early intervention is the absolute most important thing you can do.

Providing your child the support they need is critical. Expressing your love for them and that you are there to help them overcome how they are feeling is essential. It may also be a good idea to confidentially alert the school counselor or teachers. However, you may want to discuss this with your child first, as this could cause distrust and upset them even more.

Finding a good therapist that specializes in working with adolescents or teens is important. Often times, may kids in this age group may not want to engage in therapy, but you should encourage attendance. A good therapist can help them to work through the things they are going through and help to identify the source of the problem.

While medications can be effective, parents should not automatically assume medications are the answer. While most people tend to rely on whatever the doctor says, due diligence is important. Medications used to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety often come with severe side effects. It is not uncommon for medications to make someone feel worse, and suicidal thoughts can be a side effect. Other side effects associated with medications can include, weight gain, gastrointestinal upset, anxiety, headaches, or sleeping problems. All of which can make someone already suffering, feel worse. So heed before deciding to put your child on medications.

Parents should strongly consider more effective forms of treatment that are available today. One such treatment is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS therapy). TMS can be a safer, more effective treatment option for conditions like depression and anxiety, which is often what led to the suicidal thoughts. While TMS is not yet covered by insurance for this age group, most parents would not hesitate to pay for treatment when considering it could save your child’s life. TMS is FDA-approved and covered by most insurance for adult patients. However, research has shown it to be an effective treatment option in this age group as well.

Unlike medications, TMS therapy does not cause any undesired systemic side effects and tends to work faster than medications. Most patients begin to feel a lift in their depression within the first couple weeks. The treatment is outpatient and can be done in as little as 3-19 minutes.

To find a TMS therapy provider near you visit TMS Directory.