Teens at risk for suicide during the pandemic

September 18, 2020 | by Victoria Freier, MSN, RN-BC

This blog was originally posted in 2020. Some information may be out of date. For the latest updates on vaccines, testing, screening, visitor policy and post-COVID support, visit EEHealth.org/coronavirus.

Most teenagers have experienced some degree of stress during this pandemic — whether it’s missing friends, or more serious stressors like a parent losing a job, someone getting sick or an unstable home life.

Such stressors can make teens more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Pre-COVID-19, suicide was already a leading cause of death among teenagers in the U.S. Mental health experts are concerned that suicide rates will increase during the pandemic.

During 2020, mental health-related emergency department (ED) visits among adolescents age 12-17 increased 31% compared to during 2019, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From February to March 2021, suspected suicide attempt ED visits were over 50% higher among girls aged 12-17 than during the same period in 2019; among boys aged 12-17, suspected suicide attempt ED visits increased 3.7%.

Suicide does not discriminate and anyone can be at risk. Some factors that increase risk include: a current mental health disorder or substance use disorder (for the teen or a parent), family history of suicide, violence (including physical or sexual abuse), bullying and having firearms in the home.

The risk increases during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, when teens may be more likely to experience feelings of social and emotional isolation.

Suicidal thoughts or actions are a sign of extreme distress and should not be ignored. Many of the warning signs of suicide are also symptoms of depression. Be on the lookout for:

  • Any changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Isolating, emotional or social withdrawal
  • Irritability, mood swings, hopelessness
  • Statements of “I am a burden”
  • Questioning the purpose of their life
  • Lack of interest in usual activities
  • Acting out behaviors, running away
  • Anger, rage, agitation
  • Alcohol and drug use, other risky activities
  • Neglecting their personal appearance
  • Obsession with death and dying
  • Lack of response to praise

Parents know their kids better than anyone else. Pay attention to changes in behavior and trust your gut. If anything seems off, don’t wait. Seek help immediately.

How can parents protect their teens?

One predictor of how well teens do after a large-scale event, like a pandemic, is how well their parents are doing. It’s okay for your teen to see you stressed or worried. Everyone is. What’s important is for them to see you cope with it in healthy ways.

A common experience and emotion of teenagers is that life is difficult and that it is never going to get better. Unfortunately, teens often fail to reach out and share with others. When a teen is struggling, connection and communication is crucial.

Here are 10 steps parents can take to protect their teen:

  1. Restrict access to dangerous or potentially life-threatening items in the home (e.g., firearms, knives, harmful substances).
  2. Closely supervise teens with a history of suicide attempts or self-injuries.
  3. Limit time spent alone to prevent opportunities to engage in self-harm.
  4. Set limits on screen time and monitor your teen’s phone calls, texts and social media use for bullying or self-harm exposure.
  5. Try to keep conflict at home low. Make sure your teen feels comfortable coming to you for help.
  6. Frequently check in with your teen to see how he/she is feeling.
  7. Ask your teen what their friends are saying. This can help you gauge their own thoughts.
  8. Acknowledge the reality of the pandemic but reassure your teen that it’s temporary.
  9. Help your teen understand that they aren’t alone and that life will get better.
  10. Treat any talk of self-harm or suicide seriously. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if your teen cannot be kept safe in the home.

In addition to parental support, feeling connected to others and support from the community can help protect against suicidal thoughts and behaviors in teens. Having a strong relationship with a therapist is a protective factor as well.

Both in-person and virtual counseling is available, and can help teens struggling with suicidal thoughts and behavior, particularly during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Additional supportive resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • NAMI – DuPage: 630-752-0066
  • Linden Oaks Behavioral Health 24-hour Help Line: 630-305-5027

For the latest COVID-19 information, please check EEHealth.org/coronavirus.

Related blogs:

Never a reason: talking with your teen about depression


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