A Parent’s Guide to Self-Harm and Suicide Risk in Teens

Helping Your Teen: How to Understand Self-Harm and Suicide in Teens

In 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published data showing that in 2014, suicide became the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults in the U.S. In addition, data published in 2019 showed that among adolescents and young adults, rates of anxiety, depression, and alcohol/substance use disorders increased between 1999 and 2018, with the most dramatic increases occurring between 2012 and 2018. These two data sets are related because one of the primary factors that increase suicide risk among any age group, including teens and young adults, is the presence of a mental health or addiction disorder.

These reports alarm mental health professionals working with teens because the trends indicate that many of our teens are in trouble.

Teen Self-Harm and Suicide: How Big is the Problem?

Some go as far as calling the current overall situation a teen mental health crisis and specifically refer to the increases in suicide and self-harm a teen self-harm and suicide emergency.

The purpose of this article is to give you, the parent of a teen who may be at risk of self-harm or suicide, the latest and best information available on self-harm and suicide among teens. In the rest of this article, we’ll outline the scope of the problem and help you understand how you can best support your teen.

We’ll share:

  • Statistics on the prevalence of self-harm and suicide among teens
  • The most common warning signs for suicide among teens
  • Risk factors for suicide among teens
  • Protective factors for suicide among teens

Finally, we’ll include a list of articles and helpful resources on self-harm and suicide among teens, with a short description of the article/resource content, and a link to the full text. Our goal is to create a go-to reference page that helps you navigate the often confusing landscape of teen mental health treatment, while you take care of the most important thing in your life right now: maintaining the health and safety of your teen.

First, the numbers.

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The Latest Statistics on Teen Self-Harm and Suicide

All the available data shows this language is neither alarmist nor reactionary. It’s a reasonable, responsible, and credible assessment of the following facts, which paint a picture we all need to analyze carefully. Our awareness will help both the safety and wellbeing of our teens, and safeguard their mental health and quality of life as they grow into young adults.

Here’s the latest information we have on self-harm among teens. These statistics come from a study published in 2018 that analyzed data from over sixty thousand teens in the general population.

Self-Harm in Teens: Facts and Figures

  • In the U.S.:
    • 17% of adolescents reported engaging in self-injury in their lives
    • 11% of males
    • 24% of females
  • Worldwide:
    • 22.9 of adolescents reported engaging in self-injury in their lives (gender data not available)
    • 18.6% reported engaging in self-injury in the past year
  • The average age of a first self-harm incident is 14 years old
  • Around 74% of teens self-harm in order to escape or process negative emotions
  • Around 46% of teens self-harm in order to communicate emotional distress or pain to parents, friends, or others.

Now we’ll share the latest information we have on suicide among teens – this time from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with details on the data we mentioned in the introduction to this article:

General Teen Suicide Facts

  • In 2014, suicide surpassed homicide as the second leading cause of death for people age 10-24
  • An average of 3,703 adolescents in grades 9-12 attempt suicide every day.
  • 80% of adolescents who attempt suicide give clear warning signs beforehand.
  • About a third of those who die by suicide have made previous attempts
  • During the year following a suicide attempt, risk of a fatal suicide attempt increases 100 times
  • A majority of teens who attempt suicide also suffer from a mental health disorder such as depression.

Specific Teen Suicide Facts: High School Students Grades 9-12, 2019

  • 8.9% of high school students reported at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months
    • 11% of females
    • 6.6% of males
  • 23% of LGBTQI+ students reported at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months
  • 18.8% of high school students reported seriously considering suicide in the past 12 months
    • 24.1% of females
    • 13.3.% of males
  • 47% of LGBTQI+ high school students reported seriously considering suicide
  • 14.4% of non-LGBTQI+ students reported seriously considering suicide
  • 30.4% of students who were not sure of their sexual orientation reported seriously considering suicide

Those statistics outline the scope of the problem and show that the language mental health professionals use – words like crisis and emergency – are valid interpretations of the data.

If you’re the parent of a teen with a mental health or addiction disorder, or a teen who engages in self-harm or suicidal ideation, it’s important to understand that you and your teen are not alone. There are millions of families out there who share similar experiences. There are also millions of families out there who know that professional treatment helps reduce the prevalence of self-harm and suicide attempts, and can also prevent escalation from suicidal ideation to suicide attempts.

Please remember: treatment works – and the sooner a teen who needs treatment gets the treatment they need, the better the outcome.

Next, we’ll outline the most common warning signs teens display before attempting suicide.

Teen Suicide: Warning Signs

Warning signs are factors that may set into motion the process of suicide in the short term (i.e., minutes, hours, or days).

Warning signs include:

  • Talking about or threatening suicide
  • Seeking or access to lethal methods: seeking pills, weapons, or other means
  • The presence of a suicide plan
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Hopelessness
  • Rage, anger, talk of revenge
  • Reckless, impulsive, risky behavior
  • Expressing feelings of being trapped
  • Excessive alcohol/substance use
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, society
  • Anxiety, agitation, abnormal sleep (too much or too little)
  • Dramatic changes in mood
  • Expressing the feeling they have no reason for living or sense of purpose in life

Those are the warning signs. It’s important to keep a close eye on your teen if you suspect they’re at risk of a suicide attempt.

If you think your teen is in imminent danger, call 911 immediately or take them to an emergency room at a regular hospital or a psychiatric hospital.

Now we’ll outline the risk factors that may increase the overall likelihood a teen will attempt suicide.

Risk Factors

Risk factors are things in an individual’s life that are associated with contemplating suicide. These are factors which, if left unacknowledged and unaddressed, may lead to a suicide attempt at some point in the future (i.e. weeks or months).

Risk factors include:

  • Mental illness, including addiction
  • Prior traumatic life events or a history of physical or emotional abuse or neglect
  • Previous suicidal behavior
  • Unemployment or recent financial difficulties in family
  • Divorce or separation in the family
  • Social Isolation
  • Chronic, debilitating physical illness

Those are the warning signs. It’s important to keep a close eye on your teen if you suspect they’re at risk of a suicide attempt.

If you think your teen is in imminent danger, call 911 immediately or take them to an emergency room at a regular hospital or a psychiatric hospital.

Now we’ll discuss what mental health professionals call protective factors.

Protective Factors

Protective factors are relationships, circumstances, beliefs, or personal habits/skills that can mitigate or decrease the risk of suicide a teen may attempt suicide.

Powerful protective factors for teens include:

  • Strong connections to family or community
  • Problem-solving, coping, and conflict resolution skills
  • A sense of belonging
  • A sense of personal identity
  • Strong self-esteem
  • Spiritual, religious, or cultural beliefs or connections
  • Future goals, plans, and aspirations
  • Productive and constructive use of leisure time
  • Hobbies, activities, passions
  • Positive relationships with mental health professionals
  • Access to effective care for physical, mental, or substance use disorders
  • Restricted access to lethal means of suicide

It’s important to understand that the presence of protective factors does not supersede the presence of severe warning signs. If your teen shows warning signs of suicide and risk factors for suicide are present, it’s important to take action immediately: call 911 or take them to the emergency room.

That’s a lot of information to take in. However, if you’re the parent of a teen who engages in self-harm, suicidal ideation, or has attempted suicide, everything we discuss above is important to study, learn, and understand.

Self-Harm and Suicide Risk in Teens: Helpful Articles and Resources

Below, you’ll find a list of articles and resources that can expand your knowledge about teen self-harm, suicide, and suicidal ideation.

Suicide Risk In Teens – Body Image, Concussion, Mental Health Issues

Two studies published recently present data that connects the presence of body image issues and a history of concussion with an increased risk of teen suicide. This article reviews that data, discusses worldwide trends in suicide to give the content a broader context to understand the phenomenon, and analyzes how two separate factors – body image and history of concussion – can increase the risk of suicide in teens.

Finding Help: Resources

If you’re seeking treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.

Ready to Get Help for Your Child?

Evolve offers CARF and Joint Commission accredited treatment for teens with mental health disorders and/or substance abuse. Your child will receive the highest caliber of care in our comfortable, home-like residential treatment centers. We offer a full continuum of care, including residential, partial hospitalization/day (PHP), and intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
To speak with our admissions coordinators, call: (800) 665-4769