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Spotting Distress Signs in Teens: How to Tell if Your Kid Might be Suicidal

mental health distress signs in teens include more than crying and sadness
Teens sometimes won’t share mental health concerns with parents because they don’t want to worry them.

I recently read about some research on parents of teens with suicidal thoughts. The study’s results: Half of these parents didn’t know their child was thinking about suicide. I found this alarming and wondering what were the distress signs in teens. Were these parents not paying attention, did they just not know what to look for, or are teens that good at hiding their feelings?

Teens can often be irritable, angst-filled, sensitive to criticism, and want to sleep a lot. What separates “normal” teen expression from behavior parents should worry about?

I talked with Mary Sullivan, M.Ed., teen health education coordinator at the UVA Teen and Young Adult Health Center, to learn more.

Red Flags Parents Should Watch For

The most important sign to watch for in your child is a drastic change in behavior. You can expect your teen’s interests to change. It’s a different story and cause for concern if your teen loses interest entirely. Watch for a shift debilitating enough to affect academics and/or daily life. These signs don’t necessarily mean your teen is suicidal but may indicate depression or anxiety that needs professional intervention.

Watch for:

  • A sudden drop in academic performance
  • Loss of interest in activities your child once enjoyed
  • No longer spending time with friends
  • Significant changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Frequent complaints of headaches and/or body aches

Another distress sign in teens to watch for? Irritability and anger. “We tend to think about crying and sadness when we think about depression,” says Sullivan, “but depression manifests in irritability and anger, too.” It’s tricky, because anger and irritability can be totally normal parts of development in teens.

What About Cutting?

Cutting can either be experimental behavior or indicative of a bigger problem, Sullivan says. Cutting is not considered suicidal behavior, and sometimes teens try it just because their friends have done it. Still, don’t dismiss it. Treat it as a red flag.

Why Some Teens Don’t Talk to Parents About Mental Health

Don’t expect that your teen will bring concerns about their mental health to you. Many don’t, and the reasons can differ. Sullivan says that one of the most common reasons teens don’t talk to their parents about mental health concerns is that they don’t want to worry their parents. This especially seems to be true when the teen knows their parents are dealing with significant problems of their own, and they don’t want to burden them more.

Worried About Your Teen?

Are you concerned about your teen? Contact the UVA Teen & Young Adult Health Center.

Encourage your teen to talk to other trusted adults. “Every child needs another [non-parent] adult in their life they feel comfortable with. It is healthy that your child might choose to disclose certain things to that person rather than to a parent,” Sullivan explains.

Are Depression and Anxiety on the Rise in Teens?

We hear a lot these days about teen suicide and other crises in the news. You may wonder if rates of depression and anxiety are rising among teens, or if we’ve just gotten better about identifying and diagnosing mental health issues. Sullivan says it’s both.

Yes, awareness and education have improved our society’s ability to recognize, talk about and seek help for mental illness. Stigmas still exist, but they’ve become less powerful than they once were.

But data shows that rates of depression and anxiety are on the rise among teens. “We’ve seen studies that social media use is linked to climbing rates of both depression and anxiety in teenagers and young adults.”

Don’t Blame Yourself

If your teen is struggling with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or other mental health concern, don’t blame yourself. Sullivan emphasizes, “Get over your shame and guilt. You wouldn’t feel those if it was another illness. We have to stop thinking of mental illness as a character flaw.”

What to Do if You’re Worried

Sullivan is very clear: if you have any worry, reach out to your child’s healthcare provider, who can give a very quick in-office depression screening. You can even call the pediatrician before the visit to express your concerns if think you’re noticing distress signs in your teen. Doctor knows to focus on screening for depression and/or anxiety during the office visit.

Final advice? According to Sullivan, “if there’s ever anything that just worries you, even a little bit, there’s never any harm in calling the pediatrician for an objective set of eyes.”

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