It takes a whole community to help prevent teen suicide

Prevent Teen Suicide

Parents, peers, and professionals can provide hope for youth struggling with mental health

Youth suicide deaths are increasing nationwide — and in Utah, suicide is now the leading cause of death for youth ages 10-17, according to a Utah Department of Health study.

Raising awareness about youth suicide is important when young people have suicidal thoughts and parents or other adults may not be aware until it’s too late.

How do you know if a child is at risk for suicide? Risk factors for suicide include:

  • Stressful life event or loss
  • Diagnosable mental health disorder or family history of such
  • Lack of social support
  • Bullying
  • Relationship or school problems
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Easy access to lethal means such as firearms or pills
  • Physical health problems, such as chronic pain or traumatic brain injury
  • Identification as a social minority, such as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender

“Checklists are helpful, but parents know their children well and should be aware that any painful event or major stressors can become a real problem for their child,” says psychiatrist Scott Whittle, MD, medical director of Select Health. “If one of those painful events is coupled with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, the risk is even higher. You want to watch for any dramatic changes in a young person’s behavior, such as disconnecting from their peer group or no longer doing the things they love to do.”

Warning signs for teen suicide

  • Talking about death or wanting to be dead
  • Change in lifestyle patterns (friends, sleep, social media use, reckless behavior)
  • Decline in academic/work performance
  • Sudden interest or disinterest in religion
  • Carelessness in appearance and personal hygiene
  • Chronic truancy or tardiness
  • Depressive thoughts, feeling hopeless
  • Giving away prized possessions

What parents can do to prevent suicide

  • Talk to your child and engage in open, non-judgmental conversations
  • Arrange for mental health treatment or crisis intervention if you see warning signs
  • Provide positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions
  • Teach skills in problem-solving, resilience, and nonviolent conflict resolution
  • Limit screen time to less than three hours per day
  • Share cultural and religious beliefs that support self-preservation
  • Take any suicide threats seriously
  • Don’t leave the person alone
  • Restrict access to highly lethal means of suicide, such as firearms or pills

Crisis hotline and emergency treatment is available

If your child is in crisis, seek help immediately. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to the nearest emergency room to get a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and referrals to appropriate resources.

What kind of doctor or counselor should you see for mental health issues?

Your pediatrician or family practice physician is a great place to start.

“Intermountain Healthcare has a large network of primary care physicians who can refer teens to behavioral health specialists who are trained to work specifically with teenagers who are struggling with depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or other mental health issues,” says Dr. Whittle.

Intermountain has an integrated approach to care, since mental health affects physical health and vice versa. You can be seen more quickly by a primary care doctor and they can refer you to behavioral health specialists such as psychologists for diagnosis and testing, therapists for counseling, or psychiatrists for diagnosis, medication management, and counseling.

Many psychiatrists have busy practices and wait lists. Getting a referral from your physician may help speed up the process. Check the mental health portion of your insurance benefits to find out which providers and services are covered.

Intermountain has a variety of behavioral health specialists and services

Primary Children’s Hospital offers a continuum of behavioral health services for youth up to age 17, including outpatient services, trauma and abuse-specific services, day treatment, residential treatment, and psychiatric inpatient placement. For more information, contact Primary Children Behavioral Health at 801-313-7711.

For those 18 and over, there are Intermountain behavioral health clinics for adults.

Also for adults, Intermountain has a new Behavioral Health Access Center on the LDS Hospital campus. It's a walk-in center for adults in mental health crisis.

School counselors and student Hope Squads can help teens build connectedness and resilience

School counselors can help identify the causes for declining grades, chronic school absences or tardies, and possible mental health concerns. They can help parents and students know what mental health resources are available in the community.

Many schools in Utah have formed student Hope Squads with counseling faculty as advisors who educate and train teens how to recognize warning signs for suicide in other students and what to do if they feel someone is at risk. Students nominate other students to the Hope Squad who they trust and would feel safe talking with about mental health issues.

Members of the Hope Squad attend monthly QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) training sessions to learn what to do when peers confide in them about their mental health. They are trained to watch for at-risk students, provide friendship, identify warning signs, and seek help from adults. 

“Suicide rates at Riverton High School have gone down since we created a Hope Squad in 2006. During the 2015-2016 school year, we had 36 Riverton High students who were thinking of suicide and 12 suicide attempts. All were helped by early interventions by either a classmate or parent,” says Riverton High counselor Linda Tranter, MA, Ed. “Some students feel more comfortable confiding in peers about their mental health, so having students who go through Hope Squad training helps those peers know what to do with that information, and it can literally save lives.”

Riverton High School Hope Walk helps raise suicide awareness

Riverton High School and Riverton City hold an annual Hope Walk to raise awareness about suicide. It will begin Saturday, Jan. 27, at 9 a.m. at Riverton High School, 12476 S. Silverwolf Way, in Riverton. It begins at the high school and ends on the spirit corner at 12600 South and Redwood Road. Donuts and hot chocolate will provided by Riverton City.

Intermountain supports community suicide prevention efforts

Utah Governor Gary Herbert organized a Utah Suicide Prevention Task Force on Jan. 17. Mikelle Moore, Intermountain Healthcare’s senior vice president of community health is a member.

Based on a 2016 community health needs study and assessment, Intermountain Healthcare has identified depression as an area of preventive focus for outreach education to improve the health of our communities. Intermountain has partnered with several schools to support and provide funding for suicide prevention programs and Hope Squads over the past few years.