Suicide Warning Signs

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people and on the rise.

Medically reviewed in July 2021

Suicide is a top 10 cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24 years. According to adolescent medicine specialist, Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield, MD, of Medical City Green Oaks Hospital in Texas, suicide among young people is on the rise.

“I have seen a dramatic spike in suicides and suicide attempts in the last few years,” says Dr. Ucheoma-Cofield. “It’s not only the number of kids that are hurting themselves that is so alarming but also the actual successful completions of suicides.”

Talking about suicide is both uncomfortable and sad but the reality is over 42,000 Americans die each year by suicide—that is an average of 117 per day. And, many more (494,000) seek treatment for self-harm.

Why the rise?
There are a number of factors responsible for the rise in suicides over the last several years. It’s largely due to the Internet, bullying and a decline in quality family time, says Ucheoma-Cofield.

“When families are spending time together, they are often more interested in engaging with their cell phones … than with each other, which leads to less meaningful involvement of family members in each other's lives,” says Ucheoma-Cofield. “This can often lead to children feeling unsupported and vulnerable, especially when they are already struggling in other areas.”

Also, when tragedies happen to celebrities, it becomes sensationalized, she says.

“When this whole thing happened with Robin Williams and he hung himself, we did see a spike in very similar things,” says Ucheoma-Cofield. Plus, the wealth of information available on the Internet makes it easier for kids to successfully commit suicide, she says. A quick Google search will lead you to all the information you need to successfully commit suicide.

Know the suicide warning signs
Suicide warning signs can vary by age, but both adults and young people may show these warning signs:

  • Sadness, depression and low self-worth
  • Feeling hopeless or trapped
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Sleeping too much or too little  
  • Pulling away from family and friends; isolating oneself
  • Lack of interest in things that once were enjoyable
  • Increased drug and alcohol use
  • Mood swings
  • Focusing on death—talking, reading or writing about it

Suicide warning signs in young people may also include:

  • Declining grades
  • Increased lack of motivation
  • Increased irritability, anger or sensitivity, like crying or tearing up more
  • Cutting or intentionally harming oneself
  • Listening to dark music

The biggest difference in suicide risk between adults and young people is that children are much more reactive, says Ucheoma-Cofield.

“Reactive depression in adolescents not only includes their vulnerability to external influences, but also the fact that they can seem fine one minute and not okay the next,” she says. “This is often confusing for parents because they think that their children are just going through normal ‘growing pains’ when the issue could be much deeper.” 

Advice for parents
Monitor your children. “As a child gets older … there should be more monitoring, more engagement and not just ‘hey! How you doing?’’ says Ucheoma-Cofield.

Her advice to parents: Know what they’re reading on the Internet, who they’re hanging out with and have more conversations with their teachers, who get to know them in a different way, she says.

There’s a way out
If you or a loved one shows any signs of suicide, seek medical help immediately. Call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), 911 or go to an emergency room.

Mental illness is not stigmatized like it once was so don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you or a loved one is suffering from depression, tell your doctor. There are very good treatments available including psychotherapy and medications. For those in need of more intensive therapy, residential treatment centers or inpatient psychiatry facilities may be an option. 

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