Youth Suicide: Risk Factors and Prevention

Facts and Statistics

Teenagers attempt suicide roughly 10 times more frequently than adults, although their fatality rate of 11.1 per 100,000 people is about the same as adults'. This is the third leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds. For this age group, there were 5,174 motor-vehicle deaths in 1994, compared to 1,948 suicides.

According to U.S. national data released in September 1991, about one million teens (out of about 25 million) attempt suicide each year, of which an estimated 276,000 sustained injuries serious enough to require medical treatment.

Some other estimates (these are total, not per-year) are considerably higher: 3% of elementary-school, 11% of high-school, and 17% of college students. However, "Most were low-lethality attempts for which medical or other attention was not sought. Accordingly, the vast majority of [these] suicide attempts will not be uncovered by investigations dealing solely with clinical or medically identified populations." Thus, estimates or calculations of teenage suicide-attempt rates are particularly unreliable.

About four times more girls than boys make suicide attempts, but boys are much more likely to die: about 11% of (reported) males' attempts were fatal, compared to 0.1% of females', a ratio of more than 100:1. This also gives a ballpark average of about 50 attempts for every fatality in this age group.

This low fatality rate might be taken to mean that most of these adolescents don't want to kill themselves (true) and that there is generally one or more "warning" attempts before a lethal one (not true). In a study from Finland, only 30 percent of male, and 68 percent of female suicides 13 to 22 years old had made a previous (known) suicide bid. This suggests that many of these lethal first-time-attempters intended to die.

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Compared to those of older people, adolescents' suicide-attempt statistics show two significant differences. First the fatality rate for boys is a hundred times that of girls, a much greater gender difference than with any other age group. The immediate reason is clear enough: most teenage girls use relatively low-lethality methods like drugs and wrist cuts, while a substantial number of boys use guns and hanging. The reasons behind these choices are not known.

Second, the fatality rate among adolescents, less than 2%, is much lower than that among the elderly, variously reported to be between 25% and 50%. This may be because the young, however miserable, usually have more reason for optimism about the future than do the old, who are too often without friends, family, job, and health.

Nevertheless, their suicide rate is increasing, and approaching the national average.
This corresponds to about 2000 suicides among 15-19 year-olds per year. While it's true that the suicide rate is substantially higher among old people, suicide is a relatively more frequent cause of death in the young, who have few deaths from illness. That's why it's the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds, but ranks ninth or tenth for those 55-74.

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The reasons for this rise are also in dispute. Besides the usual social rationales (e.g. higher divorce rates), "Some statistics indicate that suicide attempts among younger persons have not increased, but the methods and means they are using are more lethal, making the attempts more successful," says CDC's [centers for Disease Control] Dr. Alexander E. Crosby.

Risk Factors Related to Adolescent and Youth Suicide

Mental health professionals have identified those factors that pose the greatest risk to adolescents and youth suicides. Youths who attempt and commit suicide generally have several risk factors, which are combined with the ready availability of a lethal means and the lack of suitable sources of help.

Social and economic environments

The family is one of the earliest and most significant influences in a young person's development. There have been numerous studies of family troubles associated with youth suicidal behavior, including early parental loss, parental mental health problems, parental abuse and neglect, and a family history of suicide. In addition to chronic family troubles, there are usually precipitant events closer in time to a suicide attempt, many of which involve the family. These precipitants include serious conflicts with family members or divorce of parents, perceived rejection by one's family, and failure of family members to take an adolescent's talk about suicide seriously.

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The school constitutes an important influence on youth. It is therefore not surprising that a history of school problems and the stress of disruptive transitions in school are potential risk conditions for youth suicidal risk behavior, as well as failure, expulsion, and overwhelming pressure to succeed.

Bullying is an extremely serious problem in schools and can result in the victims becoming depressed and suicidal, and even taking their own lives.

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The influence of peers on young people's behavior can sometimes be greater than that of family and school. There is a risk of copycat suicidal behavior in adolescents who have been exposed to a peer's suicide. This contagion effect is most pronounced for vulnerable youths who tend to identify strongly with someone who has committed suicide in their environments or in mass media. Common precipitating events in youth suicidal behavior include rejection from peers, the breakup of a significant relationship, or the loss of a confidant. Furthermore, adolescents and young people who fail to act when confronted with a suicidal peer, by dismissing it as insignificant or failing to inform an adult, can increase the risk of suicide.

Poverty in children and youth heightens the risk conditions for suicide, including school problems and failures, psychiatric disorders, low self-esteem, and substance abuse, all of which can increase vulnerability to suicide and suicidal behavior.

Physical environment

Having immediate and easy access to lethal means to kill oneself increases the risk that a suicide will occur. Firearms are common methods of male suicides in the United States, and young women are increasingly using guns to kill themselves. Having such an instantly lethal method available increases the risk that vulnerable young people may kill themselves impulsively.

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Additional risk factors

The researcher Jerome Motto suggested that the increased use of alcohol and drugs might have been a significant factor related to the rise of youth suicide since the 1970s. According to David Brent, at least one-third of adolescents who kill themselves are intoxicated at the time of their suicide and many more are likely to be under the influence of drugs.

A history of previous suicide attempts and the presence of a psychiatric disorder are among the most important and well-established risk factors for youth suicidal behavior. As many as 10 percent of suicide attempters eventually die in a later suicide attempt. Depression is a major mental health problem associated with suicide. In addition, impulsive behavior, poor problem-solving and coping skills, alcoholism, and homosexual orientation also increase the likelihood of suicidal behavior.


No single risk factor alone is sufficient to result in a suicide. Youths who attempt and commit suicide generally have several risk factors that are combined with the ready availability of a lethal means and the lack of suitable sources of help.

Primary prevention consists of actions to prevent suicidal behavior before people develop a high-risk or a suicidal crisis. Most youth and adolescent suicide prevention programs have focused on school-based activities where adolescents receive training in identifying signs of suicide risks and how to best react to suicidal peers. Some programs also identify resources to help with suicide and encourage young people to talk with adults if they feel that they or their friends are feeling suicidal. Young people are specifically encouraged not to keep a "secret" confession of suicidal intentions to themselves. Controversy surrounds the usefulness and effects of school-based suicide prevention programs. Few programs have been the subject of rigorous evaluations and not all programs have had positive results. Research indicates that programs that provide a variety of resources within the school and community, including specially trained teachers, mental health services and counselors, and information and training for parents, may be of more benefit in preventing suicidal behavior.

In addition to school-based programs, many primary prevention approaches have focused on key persons who may come in contact with potentially suicidal youth. These persons, called "gatekeepers," include school staff, child welfare workers, community volunteers, coaches, police, family doctors, and clergy members. Training usually involves information on taking suicide threats seriously and asking specific questions to assess suicide risk, identifying behavior changes that may indicate increased suicide risk, better identification and treatment of depression and other mental health problems, and providing information about resources to help with suicide and other community youth problems.

Emergency Help

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger because of thoughts of suicide

Please call 911

There is help for you. Stay on the phone with the operator and wait for help to arrive.

Do not hesitate to call. Your life is extremely valuable, and people care about you.

Please reach out for help. Never act on your thoughts of suicide. Never… Remember, when you die, you cannot change your mind. And if your attempt fails, you might become physically or mentally impaired for all your remaining life!

Sources and Additional Information:


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