Adolescent suicide

May 2, 2021

The teen years are an anxious and unsettling period as boys and girls face the difficulties of transitioning into adulthood. It is a period in life that is often confusing, leaving teens feeling isolated and overwhelmed. Unfortunately, some may, at one point or another, perceive suicide as a permanent answer to problems that are usually temporary.

Following motor vehicle accidents, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults. On average, adolescents aged 15 to 19 years have an annual suicide rate of about one in 10,000 people. Among youths 12 to 16 year of age, up to 10 percent of boys and 20 percent of girls have considered suicide. LGBTTQ adolescents are more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Suicide rates are five to seven times higher among First Nations and Inuit teens.

Girls generally attempt suicide more often than boys, but boys are about four times more likely to die from the suicide attempt. This is because the methods that boys choose – often using firearms or hanging – are more lethal than those chosen by girls, namely drug overdoses or cutting themselves. Teens are universally at greater risk of dying by suicide than adults because their impulse control hasn’t fully developed yet, meaning they may make a serious attempt to harm themselves based on heat-of-the-moment emotions that they haven’t yet learned to tolerate or allow to pass.

Warning signs and risk factors

Suicidal behaviours don’t just appear out of the blue. People usually display a number of warning signs when things seem so wrong in their lives that they’ve simply given up hope. Because adolescence is such a turbulent time, it may be difficult to distinguish the signs that lead to suicide from the changing, sometimes uncertain but otherwise normal, behaviour of teens. As the vast majority of adolescents who commit suicide have depressive symptoms, recognizing and getting support for clinical depression – a treatable medical condition – is essential. If your teen is showing signs of clinical depression, an appointment with your family doctor is a good place to start.

Behaviour changes to watch for include:

  • Withdrawal from family and peers
  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
  • Difficulty concentrating on schoolwork
  • Neglect of personal appearance
  • Significant changes in personality
  • Sadness and hopelessness
  • Changes in eating patterns or sudden weight loss or gain
  • Changes in sleep patterns, either sleeping too much or too little
  • General lethargy or lack of energy
  • Violent actions, rebellion or running away
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Physical symptoms that are often related to upset emotional state (e.g. headaches, fatigue, stomach aches)
  • Loss of ability to tolerate praise or rewards

How to help

It’s essential that you take suicidal behaviour or previous attempts seriously and get assistance quickly. Aside from professional treatment, a suicidal teen needs to know there are people who care for them and are available for support. Good support means listening to what’s troubling somebody without passing judgment on his or her feelings. A person should be reassured that there are always solutions to problems or ways to cope with them other than suicide. Giving an adolescent the chance to open up and talk about his or her feelings will help relieve some of the distress of those intense emotions and make them feel less alone.

Don’t hesitate to bring up the subject of suicide and to ask direct questions. Somebody who hasn’t considered ending their life isn’t going to adopt the idea simply because it has been raised. On the other hand, for individuals who are thinking about suicide, talking about suicide in plain language and addressing it openly lets the adolescent know that it’s safe to talk to you about the topic. This in turn increases the chances of them reaching out to you if they are having thoughts of suicide later.

Some parents may find that their adolescent resists their advances and isn’t willing to confide in them. When teens insist their parents “just don’t understand,” it might be a good idea to suggest they talk to a more objective or emotionally neutral person. This can include other family members, religious leaders, a school counsellor, a coach or a trusted doctor.

Restricting access to prescription drugs, firearms and ammunition is also an important preventive measure. Weapons kept in the home increase the risk that suicide attempts will be successful, by giving a suicidal adolescent the means to take their own life. Prescription drugs should always be stored where only the person prescribed to use them can access them and unused medications should be promptly returned to a pharmacy for disposal.

Getting treatment

It is important to immediately seek professional help for the adolescent who may be suicidal. Guidance counsellors at schools or counsellors at crisis centres can help ensure that a distressed teen receives the needed assistance. The hopelessness that leads to suicidal thoughts doesn’t resolve itself without intervention and waiting to reach out only serves to increase risk. Psychological counselling will help a teen develop effective mechanisms for coping with problems. These will be of value long after adolescence has ended, when a person has to face many of the stresses routinely encountered during adulthood.

Please note: This information is not a replacement for suicide counselling. Immediate attention should be sought if you or someone you know may be thinking of harming themselves. Call 9-1-1 immediately or find the nearest hospital.

Manitoba Blue Cross’s counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that's right for you here.

Along with our services, here are some additional community crisis resources available:

  • Manitoba Suicide Line – 1.877.435.7170 or
  • Youth Emergency Crisis Stabilization System – 204.949.4777 or 1.888.383.2776
  • Kids Help Phone – 1.800.668.6868 or
  • Klinic 24-hour Crisis Line – 204.786.8686 or 1.888.322.3019
  • Sexual Assault Crisis Line – 204.786.8631 or 1.888.292.7565
  • Emergency room of your local hospital