Note: If you or someone you know is suicidal, please call the Trevor Project Hotline at 1-866-488-7386 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that approximately half of parents whose teens are suicidal are completely unaware of their teen’s suicidal ideation.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the U.S.,2 and an alarming 18% of U.S. high school students have contemplated suicide in the past year.3 Suicidal ideation is a risk factor not only for a future suicide attempt, but also for impaired functioning in everyday life. What is perhaps most alarming is that rates of suicide among every age group of adolescents have been increasing every year.
More Than Grief and Alarm
These findings can make us feel grieved, alarmed, worried, or scared for our teens and the next generation. But if we truly want to alleviate teen suicidality (that is, suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts), we must be more than concerned. We must be educated — and we must take wise, bold actions and steps to keep our teens safe.
Sometimes, those experiencing suicidal thoughts are our own kids. And their suicidal ideation can go undetected.
Why Teen Suicidality Often Goes Undetected
In a expanding on the Pediatrics study, Catherine Pearson shares the story of John Trautwein, whose son Will died by suicide at 15. John reflects:
“My son Will was afraid to say ‘I’m not OK’ because I didn’t talk about these things with him. He didn’t want me to see him as not OK because he worried that would be disappointing to me. And that breaks my heart.”
Trautwein’s story shows that even the most loving parents can unintentionally create barriers to their teens speaking up about suicidal thoughts.
Teens can fear that their parents will be disappointed, angry, overly burdened, panicked, or scared by their suicidal thoughts.
Teens can fear that their parents will be disappointed, angry, overly burdened, panicked, or scared by their suicidal thoughts. These are only a few possible barriers keeping our teens from speaking up — or even showing any sign of suicidality.
Implications for Parents
In a time when teen suicide rates are increasing each year, we must be shepherds to guide and protect our children in age-appropriate ways. If we’re waiting for our teens to start the conversation about suicide with us, then we’ve already waited too long.
As in many issues teens face, we must be the ones to take the initiative. We should create space for dialogue, help our teen(s) build a support network of safe people, and educate ourselves about detecting, preventing, and addressing suicidality.
If we’re waiting for our teens to bring up suicide with us, then we’ve already waited too long.
LGBT+ Teens and Suicidality
The teen participants in the Pediatrics study were not specifically LGBT+. Yet we know from other studies that LGBT+ teens are 2-4 times more likely than their heterosexual peers to die by suicide. LGBT+ teen suicide increases up to 8 times more likely when a family is rejecting or disconnected in conversation with their teen about sexual and gender identity.4
Additionally, we know that teens are often wrestling with their sexuality or gender identity for an average of 5 years before they disclose this to their parents.5 That means that you or parents you know may have a child who is LGBT+ and suicidal.
With two co-existing risk factors, it is that much more important that adults who care for teens prepare themselves to have healthy, preemptive conversations with teens about suicide, gender, and sexuality.
Whether it’s an initial conversation or caring for teen who is imminently suicidal, it will take more than a blog post to be equipped to address possible thoughts of suicidality in a teen’s life. Here are some further resources we recommend:
- The Trevor Project: Programs & Services
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center:
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
- Insights specifically for caring for teens who are (or may be) LGBT+
- Suicide Prevention Hotlines: If you or someone you know is imminently suicidal, please call the Trevor Project Hotline at 1-866-488-7386 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
1 Jones, J. D., Boyd, R. C., Calkins, M. E., Ahmed, A. ,Moore, T.M., Barzilay, R. Benton, T.D., &Gur, R.E. (2019). Parent-Adolescent Agreement About Adolescent’s Suicidal Thoughts. Pediatrics, 143(2). doi:10.1542/peds.2018-3071
2 Sullivan EM, Annest JL, Simon TR, Luo F, Dahlberg LL; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Suicide trends among persons aged 10-24 years–United States, 1994-2012. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2015;64(8):201–205pmid:25742379
3 Kann L, McManus T, Harris WA, et al. Youth risk behavior surveillance – United States, 2015.MMWR Surveill Summ. 2016;65(6):1–174pmid:27280474
4 Schuster MA, Bogart LM, Klein DJ, et al. A longitudinal study of bullying of sexual-minority youth. N Engl J Med (2015); 372:1872-1874.
5 Family Acceptance Project™. Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, an bisexual young adults. Pediatrics (2009), 123 (1) 346-352.
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