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How to tell if a kid is at-risk for suicide

By  Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP


A kid’s death by suicide is very rare. While none of us wants to dwell on the possibility of a kid’s death, suicide is preventable if you know what puts a kid at risk and how to tell if there’s an imminent risk of suicide.


Here are some things that psychologists and other mental health professionals look for when assessing risk.


First, there are internal or personal risk factors, like:

  • Previous suicidal thoughts or behaviors,
  • A history of mood, anxiety, or (especially for those younger than 12) attention disorders,
  • Alcohol or other substance use,
  • History of high risk or other impulsive behaviors,
  • Disciplinary problems, and
  • Sexual or gender non-conformity.


Then, there are social things like:


  • A family history of suicide,
  • Witnessing family or other interpersonal violence,
  • Being abused or neglected,
  • Being a bully,
  • Being bullied,
  • Knowing someone in person or online who attempted suicide, and
  • Any recent significant loss. A divorce, the death or a parent or other family member, a relationship breakup, or the loss of a friendship could increase risk. Loss of status from not making a sports team or being accepted by a college could also increase risk.


Finally, there are cultural and environmental factors that increase risk, like:

  • Cultural or religious beliefs,
  • Stigma associated with seeking help,
  • Lack of access to appropriate health care, and
  • Access to lethal means.


Many kids experience one or more of these things. No single one of them is normally enough to increase the chances of suicide, but a kid with many of them may be more likely to consider an attempt.


Along with these things that increase chances of suicidal behavior, there are warning signs of imminent risk. Again, it’s unlikely that any one of these means a kid will try to take her own life, but the more you see, the more concerned you should be.


Look for:

  • Changes in emotions (being sad, irritable, anxious, withdrawn, or apathetic),
  • Changes in sleep (too little or too much, frequently waking up in the middle of the night),
  • Changes in eating or weight (too little or too much, unexplained weight gain or loss),
  • Changes in school (attention problems, declining grades, truancy),
  • Changes in social behavior (withdrawal, breakups, neglecting hygiene or appearance),
  • Complaints of boredom,
  • Talking about death, dying or killing herself,
  • Gathering lethal means, and/or
  • Planning or rehearsing an attempt.


Knowing what to look for is the first step in stopping a kid’s suicide. It’s important to approach any kid in distress calmly, non-judgmentally, and with hope that things will get better. Finally, always seek help from a psychologist or other specialist in kids’ suicidal behaviors, even if the immediate threat has passed.


Author Biography:

Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP  is an authority on college mental health practice and policy, including college readiness and behavioral risk management. As a college administrator and in private practice, he works primarily with adolescents and emerging adults. He is a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist.

Follow Dr. Owens on Twitter:  @drshaneowens

For more helpful information, visit:  drshaneowens.com

Shane Owens

By | 2018-10-30T20:56:28+00:00 May 20th, 2018|Health, Psychology, Uncategorized|Comments Off on How to tell if a kid is at-risk for suicide

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