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Teen Suicide Risk Factors, Warning Signs, And What Parents Can Do

Being able to recognize the signs and get help could save a life.
Suicide is the second-most common cause of death in Canadian teenagers.
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Suicide is the second-most common cause of death in Canadian teenagers.

It's terrifying to think about and devastating for parents when it happens, but teen suicide is also unnervingly common.

Suicide is the second-most common cause of death among adolescents age 15-19 in Canada, outnumbered only by accidents, according to Statistics Canada. Teens struggling with mental illness and addiction have the highest rates of suicide attempts in the country, noted a report by the World Health Organization last year. The child suicide rate in Canada is among the top five globally, the Canadian Press reported.

And a recent Toronto Star/Ryerson School of Journalism investigation found that more than 5,800 kids and teens died by suicide across Canada during the last 13 years.

Watch this message to teens considering suicide:

Oct. 10 is World Mental Health Day. To mark the event, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) tweeted a link to their tips to identify and treat early signs of suicide in adolescents.

"Suicide is a leading and preventable cause of death among Canadian children," CPS wrote in their practice points.

"Parents and/or guardians should be encouraged to allow open communication with the adolescent, particularly regarding negative feeling states and suicidal thoughts, and to ensure the home environment is safe."

What are the risk factors?

CPS noted that mental illness, previous suicide attempts or deliberate self-harm, impulsivity, precipitating factors (such as a breakup, conflict with peers, bullying, or academic disappointment), family conflict, parental mental illness, and lack of a supportive environment are all risk factors.

"First Nations, Métis and Inuit adolescents are at particular risk of suicide, with four to five times greater rates of suicide in these populations compared with non-Aboriginal youth," CPS said.

Watch how residential school's legacy has taken a toll on Indigenous youth mental health:

Suicide rates in Inuit youth are among the highest in the world — 11 times the national average, according to Statistics Canada.

What are the warning signs?

There are suicide warning signs parents and guardians can watch for, the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) notes on its website.

These include talking about suicide and asking what it would be like if they were no longer around, expressing feelings of worthlessness, seeming hopeless about the future (saying things like "What's the use?"), and becoming obsessed with giving away their belongings, CHEO said.

Additional warning signs can include a preoccupation with death, withdrawing from friends and family, aggressive or hostile behaviour, neglecting personal appearance, running away from home, risk-taking behaviour, and a change in personality, HealthLink BC adds on its website.

What to do if you believe your kid is having thoughts of suicide

"... Don't be afraid to ask about suicide," CHEO said on its website, adding that studies have shown that you can't plant suicide ideas in someone's head.

"Hopefully your child will never feel this way, but if she does, the fact that you have raised the topic will make it easier for your child to confide in you."

Don't be afraid to ask your teen about suicide.
Tassii via Getty Images
Don't be afraid to ask your teen about suicide.

Talk, listen, express your concerns, tell your child what you're noticing, ask specifically if your child has thoughts about suicide, and trust your instincts, CHEO said.

"Even if your child says 'no' when you directly ask about thoughts of suicide, trust your instincts. If you are worried your child or teen is in immediate danger for suicide, then get help," CHEO said.

Don't leave your child alone if they say they can't stop thinking about suicide or has plans to hurt themselves, CHEO added. "Call 911 if your child or teen is going to carry out a plan to kill themselves, or has made an attempt."

Parents should take all threats of suicide seriously, and seek immediate treatment, HealthLink BC said.

"Adolescents judged (by a doctor) to be at substantial risk of suicide should be referred for psychiatric evaluation and, if necessary, for assessment in the emergency department and hospitalization," CPS noted in its practice point for pediatricians.

Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, visit CAMH's resource to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you're worried about.

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