September 30, 2020

Impact of COVID-19 on Teen Suicide Risk

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By Tracy Hart, LCMHC

Many young people are having difficulty coping with the extended isolation caused by the COVID-19 virus. Recently there has been widespread discussion about whether COVID-19 could lead to an uptick in the rate of teen suicides, as connecting with peers is such an important aspect of adolescent development. For teens already at risk, knowing someone who has died from the virus could play a significant role in suicide risk.

Fortunately, the ongoing positive impact of caring adults in a teen’s life can be a protective factor. One way you can help is by understanding the truth behind two common teen suicide myths.

MYTH: “Asking about suicidal thoughts will just put ideas into their head.”

FACT: Teens are already very aware of suicide, and a healthy teen who is not considering suicide won’t be negatively influenced simply by talking about it. One of the most important things you can do to keep your teen safe is to give them the opportunity to share these thoughts and feelings with you. It may be a relief for them to hear that you are willing to listen without judgment and support their mental health needs.

MYTH: “They’re just ‘crying wolf’ or being dramatic to get attention.”

FACT: Adults should react calmly but seriously to any mention of suicide or statements such as, “Everyone would be better off without me,” in addition to significant mood changes or reckless behavior. In general, respond to suicidal thoughts or red flags for depression with the same urgency as your child had symptoms of a physical illness. For a detailed list of warning signs of teen suicide, see this page at the Jason Foundation.

Talking with Your Teen about Suicide Risk

If you have current concerns about your teen, it’s ideal to be direct: “I’m really worried about you. Have you been having thoughts about suicide?” Suicidal thoughts should be regarded as an emergency requiring a safety evaluation at the nearest emergency room or mental health crisis center.

If you don’t have specific concerns at this time, you can set the stage for an “open door” policy in which your teen can feel comfortable sharing negative or scary thoughts and feelings with you. Some teens are more willing to discuss these serious topics through texting or a chat app rather than face to face.

Consider posting emergency numbers in your home, such as 1-800-273-TALK (8225) or the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741), as a reminder for teens to reach out if they are in crisis or if they are worried about a peer who seems to be at risk.

For more tips, see this Psychology Today article on emotional support for teens during the COVID-19 crisis.

Ask a Kids Path Counselor

Kids Path offers free phone consultations to anyone in the community whose child is experiencing loss or serious illness. Call 336-544-5437 and ask to speak with any counselor.

Tracy Hart is a children’s counselor on the Greensboro campus.