Teen suicide: Is your child at risk?

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It seems like every week there is news of yet another teen who has tragically committed suicide. Bullying is usually cited as the culprit, but experts say the problem is much more complicated.

Here, find out the real reasons behind teen suicide, if your child is at risk, and what you can do about it.

Behind the statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death in kids ages 15 to 24.  Suicide attempts are on the rise too, from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011.

Although it seems like teen suicide is happening frequently, experts say it’s quite rare that they actually see it in their practices.

According to Dr. Jonathan Singer, professor of social work at Temple University and an expert for the National Association of Social Workers, because kids die less frequently than older adults, there’s actually a small percentage that die from suicide.

What’s more, the ratio of attempted suicides to completed suicides in teens is about 100 to 200:1 versus 4:1 in older adults, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

Is bullying always the cause?

A recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that kids who are bullied are three to five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or make an attempt than those who are not.

Social media intensifies bullying too, following kids wherever they are and showcasing information for everyone to see. “It brings up significant feelings of rejection, low self-esteem, and hopelessness,” said Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, a clinical psychologist at Morningside Recovery Center in Newport Beach, Calif.

And to be rejected or perceive rejection can be very painful, “especially for teenagers whose biggest need in their lives is peer acceptance,” she said.

Experts agree, however, that bullying is rarely the only cause.

“Almost no kids die simply because they were bullied,” said Singer, who explained that for 90 percent of kids who die by suicide, there was an emotional, behavioral or cognitive problem. “There are almost always other factors.”

Though, there are very rare situations when kids commit suicide for no apparent reason, and many times, it’s in response to a humiliating event.

“Somebody who is bullied and has a lot of coping skills, support in their family and in other friends, is probably more resilient than somebody who doesn’t perceive others as being supportive or has low self-esteem, identity issues, or depressed mood,” Waterman said.

Why teens commit suicide

Kids who have a mental illness, are extremely hopeless, lack parental support or have conflict with their parents are more likely to make a suicide attempt. A recent trauma or death (especially if someone they knew committed suicide), extreme impulsivity or substance abuse are also risk factors. And studies show that when there’s a gun in the home, children are significantly more likely to commit suicide.

Know the signs.

If you think your teen is at risk, here are some of the warning signs to look for:

• Talking about death or has expressed a wish to die.
• Written about death or drawn images related to death.
• Changes in mood.
• Impulsivity and risk-taking.

If you’re worried about your teen, here’s what you can do:

Stay calm

“You want to offer a lot of empathy instead of reacting with fear and anger,” Waterman said.

Show empathy

“What for you as an adult is not a big deal, might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for your kid,” Singer said. So ask questions, show that you understand, and find out what you can do to help your kid through it.

Talk more

Opening the lines of communication is crucial.  “The more experiences that they have of their parents responding in loving, supportive, protective ways, the more likely it is that they’ll go to them when things are really bad,” Singer said.

Be supportive

“Let them know you’re going to stick with them every minute until things get better,” said Waterman, who added that if you can’t be with your kid all the time, make sure someone else is there to offer support and keep him or her safe.

Don’t over-parent

You might check your kid’s Facebook page, but if you demand 24/7 access to his or her online life, then your child won’t feel comfortable confiding in you because there is nothing to share, Singer said.

Work with the school

If your kid is being bullied, find out what the school’s policy is on bullying and make sure it’s an environment where your kid will be supported.

Get help

If your kid is extremely hopeless and has an intent to die, a plan, or access to weapons, it’s important to seek treatment immediately.