Understanding Why Teens Have Suicidal Thoughts and How to Prevent It

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If your teen or someone you know is expressing suicidal thoughts, it’s crucial to seek immediate help from a mental health professional or a helpline immediately. Understanding why teenagers have suicidal thoughts is a complex issue that involves a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. It’s important to approach this topic with sensitivity and empathy.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among school-aged teenagers. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control Youth Risk Behavior Survey, it was reported that 18.8% of students had seriously considered suicide. Among all high school students, 8.9% had attempted suicide in the years preceding the study. It is estimated that the prevalence of attempted suicide is highest in females. Teens from communities of color and those who identify as members of the LGBTQI community were also at a higher risk of considering and attempting suicide.

It is important to establish comprehensive suicide prevention techniques to address the rising cases of suicide among teens. Key Healthcare offers teen residential treatment programs and extended care programs to help teens to overcome the suicidal thought process caused due to mental and behavioral issues.

While we provide some general insights, please remember that each individual’s experiences and circumstances may vary.

Understanding Teen Suicidal Thoughts

Suicidal thoughts is an umbrella term used to describe a range of active ideation, wishes, and preoccupation with self-harm with the aim of suicide and death. There is no universally accepted definition of suicidal ideation since some experts consider planning a separate part of suicide. The lack of a clear definition poses a challenge for researchers in creating a standard for assessing and managing suicidal thoughts.

Currently, there are scales used to measure the severity of depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association Practice Guidelines for Psychiatric Evaluation, using the depression scale to measure suicidal ideation is inconsistent and unreliable in predicting suicidal ideation in teenagers.

Merely having suicidal thoughts does not necessarily mean your teen will attempt suicide. Thoughts of self-harm may arise from hopelessness, shame, embarrassment, depression, anxiety, and helplessness.

Types of Suicidal Ideation

Teens with suicidal ideation may have different thoughts about killing themselves. The types of suicidal ideation include the following:

  • Active Suicidal Ideation. Teens with this type of suicidal ideation have no motivation to live and have active plans for ending their lives. They may think, “It would be so easy if I just… to end my life.”
  • Passive Suicidal Ideation. This type of suicidal ideation is present in teens who are no longer motivated to live. They have thoughts about passing away that may manifest as “I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up,” “I wish I could just walk away from everything and disappear forever,” or “I wish the world just ends.” Teens with passive suicidal ideation wish their life would end but have no plans of ending it themselves.

Common Risk Factors for Suicidal Idea Among Teens

Suicidal ideation does not arise from just a single factor. A combination of events and circumstances, individual, community, and relationship, can increase the risks of developing suicidal thoughts.

Individual Risk Factors

Some individual risk factors include the following:

  • A previous suicide attempt
  • Chronic mental health issues such as major teen depression
  • Traumatic experiences such as physical and sexual assault
  • Sense of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Chronic diseases that might cause pain
  • Substance abuse
  • Financial troubles due to the inability to find or maintain a job
  • Impulsive behavior

Community And Relationship Risk Factors

Some community and relationship risk factors include

  • Being a victim of bullying
  • High prevalence of violence in the community or family
  • Social isolation in teens
  • Breakdown of interpersonal relationships, especially romantic ones
  • Stress
  • Stigma associated with seeking help for mental health conditions
  • Media portrayal of suicide as an out
  • Access to means of ending one’s life
  • Family history of suicide

What Can Stop Your Teens from Having Suicidal Thoughts?

Many factors may cause a teen to develop suicidal thoughts. Some factors may also protect or prevent them from developing such thoughts. These protective factors include the following:

  • Strong sense of identity
  • A strong support system
  • Having a reason to live
  • A sense of connection with others
  • Reduced access to lethal means of suicide
  • Religious or moral objections
  • Availability of accessible mental and physical healthcare

Since suicide is connected to life, teens who experience violence are at the highest risk of developing suicidal ideation. Bullying, sexual abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence are among the biggest contributors to suicidal ideation in teens. Parents need to protect their children from exposure to violence and abuse to reduce these risks.

How Do Teens Express Their Suicidal Thoughts-Signs

Signs of suicidal ideation can be difficult to spot since every person is different. Teens who have suicidal thoughts may exhibit several signs and symptoms. These include the following:

  • Talking about suicide
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, and trapped
  • Engaging in self-destructive and risky behavior
  • Getting their affairs in order
  • Being generous and giving away their belongings
  • Increased substance abuse
  • adolescent social isolation
  • Formulating a plan on how they will end their lives
  • Stocking up on medication
  • teenage mood swings
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Saying goodbye

Call your local emergency number or the crisis lifeline hotline at 988 if your teen exhibits these signs and symptoms. The service is available round-the-clock, 7 days a week.

Suicidal Behavior Disorder (SBD) Diagnosis

Suicide is one of the biggest challenges faced by mental health practitioners and researchers. This is because it is caused by a combination of factors that do not always predict suicide with accuracy.

Even when teenagers have been exposed to some risk factors that increase their chances of suicide, they may not develop suicidal behavior disorder. Recent research has suggested that to improve suicide assessment, including it in the universal classification of mental disorders is important.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, introduced suicidal ideation for further consideration within the DSM diagnostic system. The introduction has led to some positive developments, acceptability, and validity of DSM-5 as a preliminary diagnostic tool. The proposed new suicide diagnosis requires that for a person to be diagnosed with Suicide Behavior Disorder, they need to meet all the 5 criteria listed.

These criteria include:

  • The individual has made a suicide attempt in the last 24 months
  • The attempt must not be non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI)
  • The diagnosis should not be applied to preparatory acts of suicide or suicidal thoughts
  • The suicidal act should not have been initiated in a state of confusion or delirium
  • The act should not be undertaken for a political or religious objective

Apart from DSM-5, there are several suicide screening tools available for clinicians. These tools do not always predict suicide, and face-to-face interviews are vital.

The doctor performs a physical exam on your teenager during a face-to-face interview. This is to assess whether signs of self-injury might be a precursor to suicide. The doctor will also ask for a detailed medical and family history to establish the risk factors that might increase the risks of suicide.

After your family history has been taken, the doctor will assess your teen’s mental health to uncover the possible causes of suicidal ideation. If your teen suffers from major depression, they are more likely to develop SI. Doctors may also inquire about any history of drug and substance abuse, increasing the risk of suicide.

Types of Treatment for Teen Suicidal Ideation

As a parent, it is your dream to ensure your teen receives the best possible care for their issues. There are several options for teen suicidal ideation treatment.

At Key Healthcare, we specialize in treating teens struggling with mental health conditions and teen substance abuse. We offer a variety of treatment options that include the Intensive Outpatient Program for Teens (IOP), Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), and Residential Treatment Center for Teens (RTC).

These programs are available to teens depending on the severity of their condition. Our staff are highly qualified and specialize in treating teen issues. We only offer the best services to ensure your teen receives adequate care to treat their suicidal ideation.

Medication for Suicidal Ideation

Suicidal ideation can be treated using a multidisciplinary approach. Primary healthcare providers play an important role in the assessment of suicide risks. Primary healthcare providers utilize pharmacological interventions to treat symptoms of suicidal ideation and underlying mental health conditions such as teen anxiety and depression.

When prescribing medication to your teens, the primary care physician considers the drug’s toxicity in overdose. This is to ensure that your teen will not try and use the drug to end their lives. The physicians also limit the amount of medication dispensed to prevent the risks of an overdose. They also ensure that parents or caregivers are responsible for securing access to medication to reduce the risks of suicide. Two medications are effective in lowering suicidal behavior. These include lithium and clozapine.


Lithium is an effective mood stabilizer. Studies show that lithium can be used as a long-term maintenance medication for teens with suicidal ideation. It works by reducing the risks of the relapse of mood disorders that might cause suicidal thoughts. Lithium has an effect on impulsive control and anger, which might contribute to suicidal thoughts and attempts.

According to some studies, lithium is recommended for teens with unipolar depressive disorder and those with recurrent episodes of suicidal ideation. However, lithium can only be prescribed if your teen does not have a contraindication to lithium use.


Clozapine is an atypical antipsychotic medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat schizophrenia and reduce the risk of suicidal ideation. Clozapine is an effective treatment option for suicidal ideation but has some risks.

One disadvantage of using clozapine is that it reduces neutrophils (a form of white blood cells), making the body vulnerable to infections. To mitigate this, teens using clozapine must regularly monitor their white blood count to reduce the risks of neutropenia.


Antidepressants can be used to treat suicidal ideation since suicidal thoughts are linked to poor mental health conditions such as depression and other mood disorders. Antidepressants can be an effective treatment for suicidal ideation since they alleviate the symptoms of depression. No antidepressant has been shown to reduce the risks of suicide since they only treat teen depression and not suicidal ideation specifically.

Teens who start using antidepressants need to be constantly monitored for worsening suicidal thoughts during treatment using Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). If you want to know how antidepressants work check out our guide.

Side Effects of Medication for Suicidal Ideation

Medication used to treat suicidal ideation may have some side effects. These include the following:

  • Headaches
  • Reduced libido, delayed orgasms, or erectile dysfunction in males
  • Gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding
  • Serotonin syndrome
  • Nausea
  • Convulsions
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Diabetes
  • Neutropenia
  • Worsening of suicidal behavior
  • Mania

Prevention of Suicidal Ideation Among Teens

As a parent, you can take several steps to help your teen with suicidal ideation. Some suicide prevention steps for teens include:

  • Have conversations about mental health and suicide. If you notice your teen is showing signs of suicidal ideation, do not wait for them to bring up the issue. Engage your teenager and discover what makes them sad, depressed, or anxious. Have the conversation in an empathetic way to ensure you foster open communication. Have a conversation about mental health and offer your support.
  • Pay attention to your teen’s behavior. Paying attention to your teen’s behavior can help in early intervention. Your teen may show signs that they are struggling with something. Paying attention will help you intervene early and seek help to treat their issues.
  • Encourage social bonding. Isolation can be a problem for teens with suicidal ideation. Encourage them to spend time with family and friends to foster social bonding and build a support system. You can also encourage social bonding by ensuring your teen participates in social activities that boost their self-confidence and awareness.
  • Monitor medication. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may worsen symptoms of suicidal ideation. As a parent, you should monitor and secure medication to prevent suicidal behavior.
  • Support the treatment plan. Treating suicidal ideation may be a long and strenuous journey. Support the treatment plan to help your teen recover.

You can also encourage your teen to practice self-care to prevent suicidal ideation. Some self-care practices include:

  • Exercising
  • Journaling
  • Listening to music
  • Writing letters to themselves
  • Pampering themselves
  • Volunteering
  • Hiking
  • Yoga Therapy
  • Taking walks


In conclusion, suicidal disorder can be difficult to treat at home. It is categorized into passive and active suicidal ideation. Passive suicidal ideation involves your teen wishing to die, while active suicidal ideation involves having thoughts and planning how to end their life. Suicidal ideation can be treated using medication and therapy.

Medications, like lithium and clozapine, have been shown to impact teens with suicidal ideation positively. Teens with suicidal ideation can also be treated using cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectal behavior therapy to help teens develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Teen Residential treatment can also be beneficial in treating suicidal ideation since it provides a safe, structured environment and round-the-clock care to help teens recover.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I ensure the immediate safety of my teenager if they are expressing suicidal thoughts?

It is crucial to prioritize your teen’s safety. Remove any immediate access to means of self-harm, stay with them, and contact a mental health professional or helpline immediately.

Are there specific warning signs or risk factors that I should be aware of in my teen’s case?

Warning signs may include talking about death or suicide, withdrawing from activities, expressing hopelessness, giving away possessions, or sudden changes in behavior. Risk factors can include a history of mental health issues, substance abuse, or exposure to suicidal behaviors.

How can I approach a conversation about suicidal thoughts with my teenager in a supportive and understanding manner?

Approach the conversation with empathy, active listening, and non-judgment. Choose a comfortable and private setting, express your concern, and encourage open dialogue while validating their emotions.

What resources are available in LA for immediate crisis intervention or emergency mental health services?

In Los Angeles, resources such as crisis hotlines, crisis response teams, and local mental health clinics can provide immediate support. Examples include the LA County Department of Mental Health Access Line and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Should I involve my teen’s school or educational institution? What role can they play in supporting my teenager?

Involving the school can be beneficial. They can provide support through guidance counselors, school psychologists, or social workers who can offer resources, and interventions by collaborating with mental health professionals.

Are there specific therapists or mental health professionals in LA who specialize in working with adolescents experiencing suicidal thoughts?

Yes, LA therapists and mental health professionals specialize in working with adolescents. You can seek recommendations from your teen’s healthcare provider, contact Key Healthcare, or search online directories to find qualified professionals.

What steps can I take to create a safe and supportive home environment for my teenager?

Maintain open lines of communication, create a non-judgmental atmosphere, foster a sense of belonging, and ensure your teen has access to appropriate mental health support. Minimize access to harmful items, and encourage healthy coping strategies.

Are there any support groups or community organizations in LA that can assist and guide me and my teenager?

Yes, there are support groups and community organizations in LA that cater to parents and teenagers. Examples include NAMI Los Angeles, Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, and various local mental health nonprofits.

How can I effectively communicate and collaborate with my teen’s healthcare providers, therapists, or counselors?

Maintain open and regular communication with your teen’s healthcare providers. Share relevant information, ask questions, and actively participate in treatment planning. Establish a collaborative relationship built on trust and shared goals.

Are there any medications or treatment options that may be recommended for my teenager’s specific situation?

Medications, such as antidepressants, may be prescribed if deemed appropriate by a qualified healthcare professional. Additionally, therapy modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT for teens) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT for teens) can be beneficial in treating underlying mental health conditions.

How can I balance respecting my teenager’s privacy while ensuring their safety and well-being?

Balancing privacy and safety can be challenging. While it is important to respect your teen’s privacy, prioritize their safety if there is an immediate risk of harm. Encourage open communication and establish boundaries together. Maintain trust by being supportive and non-judgmental, monitoring their well-being, and seeking professional help when necessary.

What long-term strategies or interventions can help prevent future episodes of suicidal thoughts and support my teenager’s overall mental health and resilience?

Long-term strategies may involve ongoing therapy or counseling to address underlying teen mental health issues, learning healthy coping skills, building a support network, and developing a safety plan for future crises. Promoting a healthy lifestyle, including exercise, proper nutrition, and sufficient sleep, can also contribute to overall mental well-being and resilience.