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Suicide and Youth

Youth are among the highest risk populations for suicide. In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 percent among 16-44 year olds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24.

Adolescence is a time of dramatic change. The journey from child to adult can be complex and challenging. Young people often feel tremendous pressure to succeed at school, at home and in social groups. At the same time, they may lack the life experience that lets them know that difficult situations will not last forever. Mental health problems commonly associated with adults, such as depression, also affect young people. Any one of these factors, or a combination, may become such a source of pain that they seek relief in suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people after motor vehicle accidents. Yet people are often reluctant to discuss it. This is partly due to the stigma, guilt or shame that surrounds suicide. People are often uncomfortable discussing it. Unfortunately, this tradition of silence perpetuates harmful myths and attitudes. It can also prevent people from talking openly about the pain they feel or the help they need.

Suicide can appear to be an impulsive act. But it’s a complicated process, and a person may think about it for some time before taking action. It’s estimated that 8 out of 10 people who attempt suicide or die by suicide hinted about or made some mention of their plans. Often, those warning signs are directed at a friend.

Recognizing the warning signs is one thing; knowing what to do with that information is another. Suicide was a taboo subject for a very long time. Even talking about it is still difficult for most people. But being able to talk about suicide can help save a life. Learning about suicide is the first step in the communication process. Suicide is about escape. Someone who thinks seriously about suicide is experiencing pain that is so crushing, they feel that only death will stop it.

Some myths about suicide

Myth: Young people rarely think about suicide.
Reality: Teens and suicide are more closely linked than adults might expect. In a survey of 15,000 grade 7 to 12 students in British Columbia, 34% knew of someone who had attempted or died by suicide; 16% had seriously considered suicide; 14% had made a suicide plan; 7% had made an attempt and 2% had required medical attention due to an attempt.

Myth: Talking about suicide will give a young person the idea, or permission, to consider suicide as a solution to their problems.
Reality: Talking calmly about suicide, without showing fear or making judgments, can bring relief to someone who is feeling terribly isolated. A willingness to listen shows sincere concern; encouraging someone to speak about their suicidal feelings can reduce the risk of an attempt.

Myth: Suicide is sudden and unpredictable.
Reality: Suicide is most often a process, not an event. Eight out of ten people who die by suicide gave some, or even many, indications of their intentions.

Myth: Suicidal youth are only seeking attention or trying to manipulate others.
Reality: Efforts to manipulate or grab attention are always a cause for concern. It is difficult to determine if a youth is at risk of suicide All suicide threats must be taken seriously.

Myth: Suicidal people are determined to die.
Reality: Suicidal youth are in pain. They don’t necessarily want to die; they want their pain to end. If their ability to cope is stretched to the limit, or if problems occur together with a mental illness, it can seem that death is the only way to make the pain stop.

Myth: A suicidal person will always be at risk.
Reality: Most people feel suicidal at some time in their lives. The overwhelming desire to escape from pain can be relieved when the problem or pressure is relieved. Learning effective coping techniques to deal with stressful situations can help.

What are the signs

Most people who consider suicide are not determined to die. They are undecided about whether to live or die, so they may take risks and leave it to someone else to save them. Warning signs may be their way of asking for help or revealing the seriousness of their situation. Warning signs can be very subtle. They can also be as obvious as someone saying, ‘You won’t be seeing me any more.’

Here are some common warning signs:

  • sudden change in behaviour (for better or worse)
  • withdrawal from friends and activities,
  • lack of interest
  • increased use of alcohol and other drugs
  • recent loss of a friend, family member or parent, especially if they died by suicide
  • conflicting feelings or a sense of shame about being gay or straight
  • mood swings, emotional outbursts, high level of irritability or aggression
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • preoccupation with death, giving away valued possessions
  • talk of suicide: eg. ‘no one cares if I live or die’
  • making a plan or increased risk taking
  • writing or drawing about suicide (in a diary, for example)
  • ‘hero worship’ of people who have died by suicide

Remember, there is no ultimate list of warning signs. It may be right to be concerned about someone simply because their behaviour is out of character. Sudden shifts in a person’s attitude or actions can alert friends to potential problems.

What can you do

The only person who can stop a person from considering suicide is the suicidal person. But you can help them to reconsider and seek other solutions. The most important thing is to listen. Take your friend seriously.

People who share their suicide plans often demand secrecy from their friends. But they’re usually hoping that their friend will stop them by getting help. When a life is at risk, requests for confidentiality must be ignored.

Don’t be afraid to be the first to mention suicide. Talking about suicide openly does not increase the risk. Ask if your friend is suicidal. Bringing the subject into the open can bring relief.

You can help by:

  • really listening, without judging not challenging, or becoming angry and shocked
  • finding ways to break through the silence and secrecy
  • asking if they have plans or have made prior attempts
  • helping them find ways to lessen their pain
  • helping them see positive possibilities in their future
  • guiding them to other sources of help as soon as possible, such as a counsellor or other trusted adult, or community crisis lines listed in your telephone book

No one can solve another person’s problems. But sympathy and support can help; knowing that someone else has faced similar tough times and survived can help a suicidal person see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

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