Preventing Suicide in Bipolar Children

Suicide is not inevitable for bipolar children, but must be taken seriously. Learning about the risk factors and signs of suicide among bipolar kids can help parents plan a prevention strategy.

No parent wants to think about a child committing suicide, yet suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teens between the ages of 15 and 19. The harsh reality is that bipolar children and teens have a greater risk of suicide and attempted suicide than their peers. Up to 50 percent of these children and teens may attempt suicide. Knowing what signs to look for and how to respond is essential to safely shepherding bipolar kids into adulthood.

The average age of bipolar disorder onset is 18, but symptoms of the disorder can appear much earlier (before the age of 10). These early symptoms, even without an official bipolar disorder diagnosis, are correlated with an increase in substance abuse, risky behaviors, and suicidal thinking.

Knowing the Risk

Understanding your child’s risk for both the disease and extreme symptoms will help you plan to decrease the risk of suicide. Risk for developing bipolar disorder increases if there is a family history of bipolar disorder and depressive disorders, because the disease has a strong genetic component. If you are not sure whether bipolar disorder is in your family, know that a family history of suicide or attempted suicide also puts your child at risk for suicide.

If you or the child’s other birth parent has bipolar disorder, your child has a 50 to 60 percent risk of developing a mood disorder. Unfortunately, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is linked to a significantly increased risk of suicide or attempted suicide, which is why parents should be concerned about their child’s symptoms.

Factors that increase the risk of suicidal thinking in bipolar kids include:

  • Early sexual abuse
  • Early parental neglect
  • Early onset of bipolar symptoms
  • Recent stressful events, such as divorce, loss of a loved one, or the end of a relationship
  • Recent release from hospitalization
  • Suicide of someone close to them, people in their community, or a celebrity

Signs of Suicidal Thinking or Risk

It would be helpful for parents if bipolar children could turn on a neon sign the moment they start to consider suicide. However, the signs are rarely that obvious. Instead, knowing whether your bipolar child is at risk for suicide may come down to a combination of gut instinct and close observation. Here are some of the signs to watch for (many of which are also signs of depression):

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Sudden changes in appetite or sleep habits
  • Doing worse at school
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Talking about or writing about suicide or death
  • Calling himself a bad person or implying you or others will be better off without him
  • Hopelessness
  • Desperation
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Substance abuse (drugs or alcohol)
  • Starting to give away toys or possessions, cleaning up, and organizing as if putting affairs in order
  • Mood suddenly improves after a depression

What You Can Do To Prevent Suicide

There are a number of ways you can help your bipolar children prevent suicide and cope better with their disease. Here are some ideas:

  • Get a diagnosis. Young people are often diagnosed many years after their symptoms first appear. If you have a family history of bipolar disorder or suicide and your child shows any symptoms — such as cycling moods, periods of irritability or high energy, or depression — the first step to prevent suicide is to get a diagnosis quickly and begin treatment.
  • Stay open. Be alert for signs and symptoms and talk to your child about what you see. Some parents are afraid to bring up suicide, but it is actually better to ask directly whether your child is considering suicide.
  • Family-focused therapy. Family therapy has been shown to be very helpful for bipolar kids and adults. It has been shown to keep moods stable for longer and also provides education for both the patient and his family about bipolar disorder, mood triggers, and other relevant factors. This type of therapy may also improve conflict within your family and benefit everyone.
  • Therapy to address early abuse. If early sexual abuse, parental neglect, or other types of abuse are a part of your child’s history, therapy that emphasizes his current safety from these threats may help keep his moods stable.
  • Support medication. Effective treatments exist for depression and unstable moods. Work with your bipolar child and her doctors to find ways that effectively keep her on her medications and maintaining stable moods.

If you are concerned that your bipolar child is about to commit suicide, take these steps:

  • Put all potential weapons or tools of suicide (such as pills) out of this reach.
  • Do not leave him alone.
  • Call his doctor.
  • Call 911 in an emergency.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) to talk to a trained counselor.

The reality of suicide is terrifying for any parent, but there are concrete steps you can take to try to prevent this tragedy. Talk to a trained mental health professional for more ideas about how to help your bipolar child.

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