The term suicidal ideation refers to having persistent thoughts about ending one’s life. Suicidal ideation itself is not a mental health disorder, but having ongoing or obsessive thoughts about killing oneself is often a symptom of a mental health disorder.
The sad reality of teen life is that fleeting thoughts of suicide may arise; however, when suicidal ideation becomes omnipresent, or when those thoughts involve detailed plans for actually ending one’s own life, the teen may be at significant risk and is in need of immediate professional help.
The teen years are times of significant physical, emotional, and social change. Many teenagers unfortunately have moments when they think about killing themselves because of external stresses and pressures, while others experience suicidal ideation due to the presence of mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depressive disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many other forms of mental illness.
Suicidal ideation should never be ignored or viewed as merely a “teen phase” or an attempt to get attention. If the problem has resulted from an external cause, proper attention can protect the teen’s safety while he or she develops more effective stress-management or conflict-resolution skills. When suicidal ideation is symptomatic of a mental health disorder, getting effective professional treatment for the disorder can alleviate the teen’s suicidal thoughts and put him or her back on track for a healthier and safer future.
Given the fact that many teens who think about suicide never voice or act upon their thoughts, it is impossible to accurately determine the prevalence of suicidal ideation among adolescents and teenagers in the United States. However, data related to teens who have attempted or completed suicide suggests that suicidal ideation among adolescents and teenagers is frighteningly prevalent.
According to The Jason Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to eradicating youth suicide, suicide is the second leading cause of non-accidental death among adolescents ages 12 to 18. The Jason Foundation also reports that more than 5,000 adolescents and teens in grades 7 through 12 attempt suicide every day in the United States.
Causes and Risk Factors for Suicidal Ideation
As is the case with many forms of self-defeating behaviors, an individual’s risk for suicidal ideation may be influenced by a variety of genetic and environmental factors, including the following:
Genetic: Suicidal ideation can be symptomatic of a mental health condition, many of which have strong genetic component. For example, teens whose parents struggle with depression have a significantly increased risk of also developing a depressive disorder, which can in raise the likelihood that they will experience suicidal ideation. Anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder are two other examples of heritable mental health disorders that may predispose a teen to experience suicidal ideation.
Environmental: Living in a dysfunctional environment can force a teenager to engage in a variety of maladaptive behaviors and can raise his or her risk for suicidal ideation. Being abused or neglected, living in poverty, being exposed to a wide range of additional short- and long-term trauma, and experiencing overwhelming stress or pressure can also increase the likelihood that a teenager will consider suicide.
- Developing an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or depressive disorder
- Being male (suicide is more common among teen boys than among teen girls)
- Family history of mental illness
- Being exposed to trauma
- Being abused or otherwise physically assaulted
- Suffering from neglect during childhood
- Knowing someone who has committed suicide
- Experiencing the death of a family member, close friend, or other significant individual
Signs and Symptoms of Suicidal Ideation
Signs and symptoms of suicidal ideation may vary widely depending upon several personal factors. However, the following are common warning signs that may indicate that an adolescent or teenager is thinking about suicide:
- Talking and/or writing about death and dying
- Expressing a sense of hopelessness
- Participating in risky, reckless, or otherwise dangerous activities
- Engaging in self-harm
- Giving away prized belongings
- Withdrawing and/or isolating oneself from family and friends
- No longer participating in activities that were once important to the teen
- Sleep problems, including insomnia or hypersomnia
- Persistent fatigue or exhaustion
- Uncharacteristic bursts of energy
- Drastic unintentional change in weight
- Noticeable changes in physical appearance
- Apparent neglect of physical hygiene
- Heart palpitations, excessive perspiration, and other symptoms of panic attacks
- Problems with focus and/or concentration
- Memory problems
- Preoccupation with death and dying
- Pervasive feelings of hopelessness
- Diminished self-esteem and self-worth
- Panic and/or anxiety
- Dramatic mood swings
- Loss of interest in significant activities
Effects of Suicidal Ideation
Of course, the most significant negative outcome of suicidal ideation is that a teen will end his or her own life. However, continued untreated suicidal ideation, as well as suicide attempts that are not fatal, can also lead to a variety of additional detrimental physical, psychological, and social effects, including but not limited to the following:
- Irreversible cognitive impairment
- Permanent organ damage
- Organ failure
- Diminished academic performance
- Strained and ruined interpersonal relationships
- Injury due to reckless behaviors
- Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration, related to reckless behaviors
- Social withdrawal or ostracization
As noted earlier on this page, suicidal ideation can be symptomatic of one or more mental health disorders, including but not limited to the following:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)