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Teen Suicide Prevention

You could be a key player in Teen Suicide Prevention.

Whether you are a ministry leader or a parent, you are reading this information first and foremost because you have a teenager (or several) that you love. Being charged with the care of young people is a beautiful, privileged, and at times, heavy responsibility. Teenagers deal with many complexities as part of their personal and social development; accompanying them through this stage of life can, at times, be a tumultuous rollercoaster. The focus of the following information is teen suicide prevention. Suicide, or intentionally sought death through self-inflicted harm, is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States (1), with 1 out of every 5 teenagers seriously considering attempting suicide (2). Here, we will discuss how to detect warning signs that a teenager may be at risk, what to do if it is determined that a teen is, in fact, suicidal, and how a few key habits in the home can help uphold mental health. 

Before diving into this information, please remember these four things: 

  1. The purpose of the information provided is to build understanding. Understanding can lead to awareness and awareness may make all the difference in saving the life of a young person.
  2. You are not responsible for the actions of any other person. As loving and caring adults, we commit to doing whatever we can to protect the lives of our loved ones, but we do not possess final control over other people’s decisions. Another’s decision to take their own life is never your fault. 
  3. While the 5th Commandment forbids the act of killing, and therefore, suicide, one of the requirements of a mortal sin include that it be freely partaken. The psychological state of one who considers or commits suicide may compromise this requirement and may lessen the individual’s culpability for the sin. Paragraph 2282 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of one committing suicide.” As parents and ministry leaders, this information is particularly pertinent during times of pastoral care when addressing someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Great comfort can be found in the following paragraph 2283 of the Catechism, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.”  
  4. The Church is your family. Parents and ministry leaders, together, make possible the best care of our teenagers. Your family is here to learn with you, to struggle with you, to grieve with you, to pursue healing and consolation with you, to pray with you.

Know the Warning Signs and Risk Factors

The first step to teen suicide prevention involves understanding the warning signs. Individuals who are at risk of committing suicide tend to display outward warning signs or indicators of their inward dispositions. The second step is to be aware, to pay particular attention to your teen, their behavior, and their life circumstances. Risk factors of teen suicide are typically genetic, situational, or environmental. 

The warning signs and risk factors for suicidal behavior can be found here. Please take the time to read and familiarize yourself with the information. While it is a meaningful start, the list of warning signs and risk factors of suicide are not intended to be exhaustive and knowing this information alone is not a foolproof plan for preventing suicide. The sources of these lists are indicated on the PDF. It is recommended that you share these lists with other trusted adults in your teenagers’ lives, as well as the teenagers themselves, and discuss them. Your teenagers will benefit from being educated about these warning signs and risk factors, as the knowledge will better enable them to recognize the warning signs within themselves and within their friends. The more people on the lookout, the better. 

Along with this resource, please share with them the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and have them save the number in their phone: 800-273-TALK (8255).

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255).

In his podcast episode entitled “Teen Suicide: Seeing the Signs to Prevent the Sorrow,” Roy Petitfils, a Catholic psychologist, advises adults to consider four criteria related to warning signs (3):

  • Do the warning signs overlap? Greater overlap is of greater concern.
  • Is the behavior particularly intense? Greater intensity is of greater concern.
  • Has there been a drastic or rapid change in behavior. The greater the rapidity of behavior, the greater the concern.
  • Is the behavior episodic or regular? The greater the regularity, the greater the concern.

This criteria is particularly important because an individualized warning sign may not necessarily be an indicator of suicidal risk. It can be difficult to determine a true warning sign from expected or common teenage mood swings and angst.

Know When to Take Action

The third step to teen suicide prevention is taking the necessary action. If you, as a parent or ministry leader, recognize warning signs in the behavior of a teenager, or are explicitly told that a teenager is suicidal, you will need to act. Below are recommended actions. The Office of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries is not to be held liable for the death of any persons following recommendations. Furthermore, our office always promotes adherence to diocesan policies on communication with and transportation of minors, in adherence with Safe Environment regulations.

Recommended actions if it is determined that the teen is in immediate danger:
  1. Move quickly and calmly. 
  2. If the teen has communicated with you via phone, try to speak with them on the phone or text and ask them to promise you that they will not do any harm to themselves. Ask for the teen’s address, if you need it, and call 9-1-1 to get to the teen as fast as possible. 
  3. If you are already with the teen, you will need to take them to the emergency room. If you’re unsure of whether or not to take your teen to the hospital, you can call 1-800-SUICIDE for assistance in this decision (4). When in doubt, take your teen to a Children’s ER and allow the mental health professionals present to make the decision about the teen’s safety. 
  4. Alert the appropriate adults. If you are a ministry leader, volunteer at a church, etc., you will need to follow proper protocol to inform the parents of the situation and to document the conversation. It is best if the care of the teenager is in the hands of the parents or legal guardians, as soon as possible.
  5. Parents, you will need to take steps to ensure that all dangerous items that could be used to attempt a suicide are removed from your teen’s environment. 

For further recommended steps for responding to a suicide crisis, please visit the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Recommended actions if it is determined the teen is NOT in immediate danger:
  1. Again, alert the appropriate adults. It is best if the care of the teenager is in the hands of the parents or legal guardians, as soon as possible. Additionally, parents are oftentimes already aware of their teen’s mental health and there may be a care plan in action. A ministry leader or volunteer can help the family connect with further resources.
  2. Parents, do not be afraid to discuss what warning signs you or others have observed with your teen. Explicitly ask, “Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?” It is a common fear that bringing up the topic of suicide will implant the idea of suicide in the other person’s mind. This is not true. In fact, Roy Petitfils states that providing an outlet for conversation may actually be therapeutic and helpful for a teen.
  3. Take steps towards care:
    • Parents, attaining Counseling Services for high risk teens is a non-negotiable step in best securing their safety. 
      • The Office of Lay Formation and Family Ministry of the Diocese of Dallas compiled a list of local Christian and Catholic Counseling Services in the Dallas-area, last updated in 2018. The Office conducted an interview with each listed resource; Catholic counselors have consented to only provide counsel in light of the teachings of the Catholic Church and those counselors who work within a parish setting have been Safe Environment cleared.
      • If your family does not have insurance, the list of Counseling Services provided indicates which resources provide free services.
      • You can also visit this website to find a Catholic therapist. 
      • Your teen may be very resistant to attending therapy sessions. Do your best to encourage them to take care of their mental health and to cooperate with the process, while maintaining appropriate boundaries.
    • Parents, consider upholding the suggested best practices for mental health in your home. 
      • Please note: Upholding these suggested practices in your home may be helpful in maintaining or promoting mental health, but do not guarantee mental health. The Office of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries is not to be held liable due to the content of these practices.
      • Some suggested mental health best practices include, but are not limited to: Limiting screen time on phones and TVs (particularly before bed); creating opportunities for your teens to gather safely with one another; discussing values, goals, and the purpose of life; encouraging regular sleeping habits (same time to wake up and go to bed each night); encouraging healthy eating and refraining from excessive consumption of foods that cause discomfort or inflammation; encouraging regular exercise in a non-obsessive manner; finding opportunities to be outside in the sun; encouraging the disciplines of prayer such as journaling, meditation, participation in the Sacraments, and Scripture. (Please note: While we recognize the mental health benefits of prayer and pray for miraculous healing, these should come alongside mental healthcare such as therapy or prescribed medication.)

Again, being charged with the care of young people is a beautiful, privileged, and at times, heavy responsibility. The Office of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries extends our prayers to all of our young people, in particular those who are struggling with their mental health and are at risk of suicide. We also pray for the adults, the parents and ministry leaders, who walk alongside our teens every day. May you find solace in your Church family as well as wisdom and strength through the Holy Spirit as you support our young people.

Further Resources

Sources Cited