Skip to main content

Suicide Prevention in Children and Adolescents

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year olds.

Missouri and Kansas have even higher rates of suicide than the national average. The good news is – suicide is preventable. Prevention starts with identifying kids who are at risk.

Screening can help

Children’s Mercy is dedicated to preventing suicide. In 2014, we began a screening process for patients 12 years and older that asks if they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts and/or actions. If the screening results in any concerns, Children’s Mercy social workers conduct additional assessments and interventions, partnering with families to and connecting them with mental health resources. Social workers also provide additional follow-up with patients and families after their visit. Read more about Children’s Mercy’s screening process.

Watch for warning signs

It’s important to be on the lookout for warning signs, especially in adolescents, who can struggle with physical and emotional changes. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the following behaviors should raise concern:

  • Often talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
  • Making comments about being hopeless, helpless, or worthless
  • Expressions of having no reason for living; no sense of purpose in life; saying things like "It would be better if I wasn't here" or "I want out."
  • Increased alcohol and/or drug misuse
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and community
  • Reckless behavior or more risky activities, seemingly without thinking
  • Dramatic mood changes
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being a burden to others

If you notice any of these behaviors, talk with your child, seek help and restrict access to methods that are commonly used for self-harm or suicide. If your child is already seeing a mental health professional, keep appointments and communicate your concerns.

It’s OK to talk about it

It is important to be aware that talking to your child about suicide does not initiate suicidal thinking or increase the likelihood of suicidal behavior. Talking about suicide can open communication, granting your child permission to share their thoughts and ask questions about suicide – both in that moment and in the future.

There are many ways to talk to your child in an effective way about their mental health and suicide. Consider the following tips:

  • If your child brings up the topic of suicide, don’t shy away from it. Ask open-ended questions about their feelings, thoughts, and beliefs.
  • Try to respond in a non-judgmental way to foster open communication.
  • Stay calm. A strong emotional reaction can end a conversation quickly.
  • Ask questions and repeat back what is said. Feeling heard can help build trust and promote deeper understanding.
  • Answer questions if you can. If you don’t know an answer, it’s OK to say, “I need to think about that.”
  • Acknowledge that talking about suicide is difficult. Praise your child for talking about a hard topic. This can make it easy to return to the conversation in the future.

If you and your child need help with this conversation, you can reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. Additional help can found at these resources:

Children’s Mercy’s Talking With Teens About Suicide

healthychildren.org: How to Communicate With and Listen to Your Teen

Johnson County’s Suicide Prevention Coalition

Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: Talking to Your Kid About Suicide

“Our daughter was an avid shooter and hunter. She had access to guns all the time. She had her own firearms to hunt with and to go to the range. My fault as a parent was I never once thought she would use them to end her life. Knowing what I know now, I would have kept them locked up in a safe where she could only access them with my permission.”

Father of a child lost to suicide

Increase safety at home

Suicidal thoughts and actions are often impulsive and access to firearms, medications or other potentially lethal objects is a risk factor for suicide. Restricting or eliminating access to means of suicide results in a child or teen who cannot immediately act on an impulsive thought. Delaying an impulsive act reduces the likelihood that suicide will be attempted.

Firearms

Firearms account for about half of the suicide deaths in our area.

  • We advise storing firearms outside the home, if possible.
  • For firearms stored in the home, the safest approach is making sure firearms are stored locked up, unloaded, with the ammunition locked up separately.
  • Free gun locks are available to families at Security desks at the Children’s Mercy Adele Hall Campus, Children’s Mercy Hospital Kansas, and Children’s Mercy West. Simply ask a security officer to provide a gun lock, and one will be given to you – no questions asked.
  • We encourage you to share this information with all adults in your home. Discussions and planning around firearm storage can be awkward at times, but it is an investment that can lead to lives saved.
  • We are not against guns, we are against our patients having access to guns when feeling desperate.

Medications

  • Any kind of medicine can cause harm if used in the wrong way or by the wrong person, even medicine you can buy without a prescription. Some of the most dangerous overdoses we see include prescription medications, allergy medications, pain relievers and other medications commonly found in the home. We recommend keeping only a small amount of medicine unlocked in a pill organizer (if being used) and locking the rest up in a safe and secure place such as a locked cabinet, drawer or box.
  • Dispose of any leftover prescription medications to reduce the risk of accidental exposure or misuse. A medication drop box is available in Outpatient Pharmacy at Children's Mercy's Adele Hall campus available from 8 a.m. – 7 p.m., 7 days a week. Children's Mercy Hospital Kansas has a medication drop box near the pharmacy in the lobby; it is available 9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Learn more about safe medication storage and disposal.
  • Many medications are dangerous when combined with alcohol. We encourage you to limit access to alcohol in your home.
  • Share information about medication safety with all adults in your home.

Other objects

  • Limiting access to sharp objects like knives and razor blades is important for those who self-injure.
  • It is important to know that death by hanging has become more common among youth, so limiting access to ropes is important.

Supervision

Part of a strong safety plan is making sure we increase supervision for young people at risk of suicide. Some parents do a “room sweep” to check for items that could be used in suicide. If you see something odd or that doesn’t make sense, do not hesitate to ask about it.