Youth suicide: risk & protective factors…

Current suicide rates for the 15-24 age group is currently running at around 8% in the UK (per 100,000).

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Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/koya79

In 2011 (latest figures) The Samaritans took over 600,000 calls from people expressing suicidal feelings.

Not wishing to alarm anyone, but I’ve been there myself. It’s horrible. And terrifying. And, worst of all, it’s lonely.

Those of us who work with troubled young people need to know what we’re looking for, so that we can help. It could be a life or death issue…

Risk factors you should know about…

Some things to look out for are:

  • Big setbacks e.g. losing a job, ending a relationship, failing exams
  • A marked change of behaviour e.g. seeming to be calm and at peace for the first time or, more often, being withdrawn or not communicating
  • Seemingly sudden loss of self-esteem
  • Uncharacteristically socially isolated or becoming increasingly so
  • Sleep problems – particularly waking up early, pacing at night
  • A sense of uselessness, futility and hopelessness – wondering “What’s the point?”
  • Taking less care of themselves than normal e.g. not eating properly, not caring for themselves – showering, clothing, etc.
  • Suddenly writing a will or applying for life insurance
  • Mentioning or overtly talking about suicide. Most people who have taken their own lives have spoken about it to someone – it’s a myth that people who talk about suicide don’t go through with it

If someone has thought about or attempted suicide in the past, however fleetingly or rarely, they are more likely to resort to it as a means of coping when life becomes stressful again.

Individually, these issues may seem challenging but fairly benign. But sudden onset, particularly of a number of factors at once, should pique our attention and put us on alert.

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Background factors that might be relevant…

It’s important to take these factors for suicide very seriously:

  • Previous talk about suicide
  • Attempt/s at suicide or serious self-injury
  • Pre-existing serious mental health issues: psychological or psychiatric disorders, particularly depression and/or other mood disorders 
  • Substance misuse and/or alcohol problems
  • History of abuse, neglect or other form of mistreatment, particularly where this is severe and unresolved
  • Family member/s have taken their own lives
  • Isolation or lack of social support
  • Tendency towards feelings of hopelessness
  • Ongoing physical ill health
  • Impulsive tendencies
  • Financial problems
  • Relationship or other social loss/es
  • Easy access to methods/means of suicide
  • Previous exposure to others who have committed suicide

What Are Suicide Protective Factors?

Protective factors are things that reduce the likelihood of suicidal behaviour occurring. They include:

  • Accessing the right professional help for physical, mental and substance misuse problems
  • Developing problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills
  • A supportive family member/s
  • Community support – friendships and other trusting relationships, support groups, etc.
  • Restricted or minimal access to the methods/means of suicide
  • Support from medical and health care personnel
  • Religious and cultural belief systems that discourage suicide

Looking out for risk factors, particularly combinations of them, can be a real help too. As can proactively asking how someone is, listening attentively to the response and not being judgmental in our advice and support.

As with many problems, one theme that crops up frequently as a protective factor, is access to trusting relationship/s. The ability to talk to someone, without prejudice, can save a life.

It is every good parent’s nightmare to outlive their children. Knowing a little bit about what to look out for and how we can support teens through turbulent times, might just avert the nightmare becoming a reality…

Get your FREE copy of my e-book: ‘Connecting with Troubled Young People’…

Final thought…

Some of the items above may appear obvious. Hardly worth pointing out. But sometimes it’s the simple things, the taken-for-granted things that can have the greatest impact.

For more information & support…

What do you think?

  • What are your thoughts and observations about teen suicide?
  • Are you a mental health professional? Share your views here…

Please contribute to this discussion by adding your own thoughts and experiences. You can  leave a comment by scrolling down, or just click here.

Related previous posts…

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Rob

    Hi Jonny,
    I don’t profess to be an expert on these matters, but I do know how debilitating and horrible depression is. Unfortunately depression is still often stigmatized, and people are often reluctant to talk about their illness, and experiences, and the only way to get rid of the stigma is to talk and be open. Many people would still be alive today if they did seek help, counselling, or many of the medications out there with counselling to treat this condition.
    I know people who have had depression, who have told me that they would never put this as a reason for going on the sick, as they feel they could be discriminated against e.g. not getting another job because they feel they would be judged, or even promotion in their existing job, as they feel that some peoples preconceptions is that they wouldn’t be able to cope.
    If we as adults feel this way, how does a teenager or young person feel, when they are still developing physically and mentally. Any mention of suicide or doing serious harm has to be taken seriously, and lets be honest here, suicidal thoughts often go with depression when in that dark hole of helplessness and despair.
    The word such as “Attention seeking, and It’s all put on” has been used when a young person harms themselves significantly through cutting, overdosing, and asphyxiation, but if anyone had been through depression and the trauma that many people have been through, they wouldn’t use them callous words of description.
    I agree with all you are saying Jonny, and because I can sing from the same hymn sheet as yourself, I can empathize with young people who have gone through depression. There is help out there, and it is paramount that the various signs of depression are picked up, no matter how trivial it may seem.

    • jonnymatthew

      I agree, Rob. We have to be very careful about the language we use. People are understandably nervous about disclosing their illness, but I think we are slowly moving in the right direction on this. My own experiences to date would certainly back this up.

      Also, people in caring professions are still poorly catered for in terms of the support that is made available to them. Your own place of work is very stark case in point – heavy and very pressurised work loads with no proper clinical or pastoral care from the employer. Absence rates reflect this.

      One way we can change the stigma going forward, is to ensure the next generation of young people get the right support…

      • jonnymatthew

        P.S. For those interested in more info and/or support, check out the Black Dog Tribe website, here: http://blackdogtribe.com/

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  • Leonna Anderson

    suicide in children is on the rise because they cant cope or deal with the abuse/emotional abuse
    physical abuse and more/my abuse and domestic abuse from family made we keep wondering why in gods name was i put on this earth to keep been hurt like this but its not us who should feel this way its the people who are doing wrong should feel the pain not the innocent

    • jonnymatthew

      Sounds like you had a rough ride, Leonna – but you made it through the teenage years. Well done! This piece was an attempt to make some of the warning signs clear so that those who work with kids on other issues (social services, offending, disability, etc.) can also be aware of some of the mental health issues that might be around. Hopefully this will contribute to helping some other kids avoid the journey you had to go through. Thanks for commenting! Cheers, J.