Understanding youth suicide

back view of mum with hand on teenage daughters shoulder standing together

This article discusses suicide. If your teen is in immediate danger or is going to act on suicidal thoughts, call 000 if you live in Australia. A number of crisis support services are also there for you – have a look at our urgent help page.

Concerns about suicide for your teen, or someone they know, can be extremely worrying for parents. Parents play an important role in supporting a teen that might be thinking about taking their own life. Knowing some signs to look out for and how to respond early can make all the difference. And if you’re really worried, it’s important to know where you can go to get help.

This can help if you:

  • want to know more about what suicide is and what the contributing factors

  • worry about your child that has previously attempted suicide or has suicidal thoughts

  • have noticed that your teenager is acting out of character or showing dramatic changes in mood.

Young people and suicide

While suicide in Australia is becoming less common, it’s still the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 years. There are many reasons why young people consider suicide. It may be impulsive for some, while for others it could be carefully planned. It’s often unclear to family and friends why the person may be contemplating suicide and for parents, suicide is a great source of concern.

Young people who consider taking their own life can’t imagine ever feeling better. The pain they’re feeling inside outweighs their ability to cope with it and they’ve often lost hope. There will usually be an underlying cause for your teen’s distress and it’s important to know that it may be a long journey to feeling better. Your teen needs your support and that of their family and friends to keep them well.

Who is at risk of suicide?

Groups at higher risk of suicide include:

  • young men

  • young people from some culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people

  • those in rural communities

  • young people who have previously attempted suicide

  • LGBTQIA+ young people.

This is often related to these groups being impacted by their environment - bullying, discrimination, loneliness, social exclusion and isolation, lack of confidence or a feeling of hopelessness. While approximately 87% of people who die by suicide have a mental illness, not everyone who has a mental illness is affected by suicidal thoughts. Likewise, not everyone who suicides is mentally ill.

That being said, the risk of suicide can apply to any teenager so you need to be aware of things to look out for.

Warning signs of suicide

Suicide is very complex and is often not related to one specific reason or cause. It may be hard to identify that there’s an issue or that there’s something to worry about. Some signs that your teen may be considering suicide include:

  • talk of death or suicide, even jokingly

  • expressions of hopelessness or being trapped

  • withdrawal from friends and family

  • increased use of alcohol or other drugs

  • expressions of rage or revenge

  • dramatic changes in mood

  • research into suicide methods on the internet

  • the making of final arrangements, such as saying goodbye to friends and family and giving away possessions

  • being down for a significant period of time but then seem to be ‘doing really well’.

When to worry and what to do next

The more warning signs your teen is displaying, the more cause for concern there is. If you’re worried about suicide, it’s always best to listen to your instincts and directly ask your teen about it. This can be difficult; there are misconceptions out there that talking about suicide might ‘put an idea in someone’s head’. In fact, you can actually lower the risk of suicide by being open and communicating your concerns about suicide with your teen.

Ask your teenager directly if they are thinking about suicide, e.g. “Are you thinking about suicide?” If they say yes, take your teen seriously and get help. If you don’t get the help you need – keep trying until you do. Young people have told us that the worst thing about feeling suicidal and trying to get help is not being believed by their parent or carer, or a health professional.

Listen and ask lots of questions

Even if you feel like you understand your teen, it’s a good idea to ask lots of questions about what’s going on with their life at the moment.

The most important thing is to listen to what they’re saying and acknowledge how they might be feeling. If you’ve got helpful or constructive things to say, you can say them after you’ve made your teen feel heard.

Get more tips on having a conversation about suicide with your teen.

Make a safety plan

Once you’ve found a turning point in your conversation and your teen is safe for the time being, you can help them make a safety plan. A suicide safety plan is a temporary set of things your teen can do when they’re feeling distressed.

That plan might include: a list of people they can talk to if they’re feeling distressed activities to take their mind off of things ways to get rid of dangerous or harmful objects and create a safe environment at home.

For more on how you can help your teen create a suicide safety plan, read our article here.

It’s important to remember that recovery is possible and helping your child be well again is the aim.

For information on how to communicate about suicide effectively and how and where to get help if you’re concerned about your child, see our Things to try.

If you want to speak to someone about what’s going on, you can get support from the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 65 94 67.

Parentline Australia also offers free telephone counselling for parents and carers. Find your state’s Parentline number here.