Why do teens try to kill themselves?
Most teens interviewed after making a suicide attempt say that they did it because they were “trying to escape” from a situation that seemed impossible to deal with or “get relief” from bad thoughts or feelings. Some people who end their lives or attempt suicide might be trying to escape feelings of rejection, hurt, or loss. Others might feel angry, ashamed, or guilty about an event or circumstance in their lives. Some people may be worried about disappointing friends or family members. And some may feel unwanted, unloved, victimized, or like they’re a burden to others. We all feel overwhelmed at times by difficult emotions or situations. So why does one person try suicide when another person in the same tough situation does not? What makes some people more resilient (better able to deal with life’s setbacks and difficulties) than others? The answer to those questions lies in the fact that most people who complete or attempt suicide have depression.
Depression is more than just being “sad”
It is normal to feel sad, down or discouraged sometimes; these are natural human emotions that we all experience. We may feel sad over an argument with a friend or parent, a breakup, or a friend moving away. We might be disappointed about doing poorly on a test or getting cut from a sports team. The death of someone close can lead to a specific kind of sadness — grief. Most of the time, people manage to deal with these feelings and get past them with a little time and care.
Depression, however, is more than occasionally feeling blue, sad, or down in the dumps. Depression is a serious illness that requires both diagnosis and treatment from a trained medical professional.
When people have depression, it affects their emotions and mood. It twists their way of thinking. Depression can also affect people physically, even causing body aches and pains. Not everyone who is depressed, however, shows it in exactly the same way.
Depression affects a person’s thoughts in such a way that he or she doesn’t see that a problem can be overcome. The depression puts a filter on the person’s thinking that distorts reality, and may therefore see suicide as the only solution to their problems. But this isn’t true. There is another way.
Sometimes people who feel suicidal may not even realize they are depressed. They’re unaware that it is the depression, not the situation, that’s influencing them to see things in a “there’s no way out,” “it will never get better,” “there’s nothing I can do” kind of way. When depression lifts because someone gets the proper therapy or treatment, the distorted thinking is cleared. The person can find pleasure, energy, and hope again. But while someone is seriously depressed, suicidal thinking is a real concern.
Teens with alcohol and drug problems are also more at risk for suicidal thinking and behavior. Alcohol and some drugs have depressive effects on the brain. Misuse of these substances can bring on serious depression. That’s especially true for some teens who already have a tendency for depression because of their biology, family history, or other life stressors. Many people who are depressed turn to alcohol or drugs as an escape, but they may not realize that the depressive effects alcohol and drugs have on the brain can actually intensify depression in the long run. In addition to their depressive effects, alcohol and drugs alter a person’s judgment. They interfere with the ability to assess risk, make good choices, and think of solutions to problems. Many suicide attempts occur when someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This doesn’t mean that everyone who is depressed or who has an alcohol or drug problem will try to kill themselves. But these conditions, especially both together, increase a person’s risk for suicide.
Other risk factors for suicide in teens include:
- Being LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered or Queer/Questioing)
- Someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted
- Someone who is a victim of bullying for an extended period of time
Suicide Is Not Always Planned
Sometimes a depressed person plans a suicide in advance. Many times, though, suicide attempts happen impulsively, in a moment of desperation. A situation like a breakup, a big fight with a parent, or being victimized in any way can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and trigger a suicide attempt. Situations like these, on top of an existing depression, often act as “the final straw.” Some people who attempt suicide intend to die, while others aren’t completely sure they want to die. They may view suicide as the only way to end their pain. Sadly, many people who really didn’t mean to kill themselves end up dead or critically ill.
What if This Is You?
If you have been thinking about suicide, get help now. Depression is powerful. You can’t wait and hope that your mood might improve. When a person has been feeling down for a long time, it’s hard to step back and be objective. Talk to someone you trust as soon as you can. If you can’t talk to a parent, talk to a coach, a relative, a school counselor, a religious leader, or a teacher. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or your local emergency number (911). These toll-free lines are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by trained professionals.