Facts about suicide among young people

The suicide rate among young people is not declining

  • Some 40-50 people under the age of 20 take their own lives in Sweden every year, of which around five are under 15.
  • Over the past fifteen years, the suicide rate in Sweden has declined by about 20 per cent, as it has in much of the EU, The trend does not, however, apply to young people, for whom the rate has remained stable for many decades.
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death among men between the ages of 15 and 44 in Sweden.

This article was first published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap No. 4/2009.

Claims about suicide – true or false?


People who often talk about suicide will not attempt it.
False! Most people who commit suicide do talk about it, more or less explicitly. But the people around them don't always get the message.

Talking or writing about suicide is risky – you should let sleeping dogs lie.
False! Research shows that it can work preventatively since it can make the person aware that they need to seek help.

Suicidal thoughts are common amongst teenagers.
True! It's relatively common for teenagers to think about suicide and existential issues. But if such thoughts lead to a suicide attempt, they must be taken extremely seriously as an expression of severe emotional problems.

Teenage boys are less likely to talk about suicide before committing the act.
True! Boys often keep their feelings to themselves and also commit suicide more often. It's twice as common for young men to take their lives than young women.

Most young people do not convey their thoughts of suicide to adults.
True! Young people often turn to their peers with their problems. It's also not uncommon for then to find it easier to talk to adults other than their own parents.

Suicide happens suddenly without warning.
False! The suicide process in adults is often long and drawn out. But in young people it can more often occur suddenly, and so it's important to be extremely vigilant for signs of mental ill-health among them.

Suicide is often preceded by an "up" period.
True! A depressed person is often unable to act. But once the depression wears off, their energy can return, bringing with it the greater risk of suicide.

Suicide is more likely in people who have previously attempted it.
True! Research shows a strong and lasting correlation between previous suicide attempts and completed suicide.

Suicide is more common around birthdays and other festive occasions.
True! A thesis published by Karolinska Institutet has shown that young people between the ages of 10 and 24 were more likely to commit acts of suicide over a two-week period close to their birthdays.

Suicide is often based on rational thoughts about the value of life.
False! Most acts of suicide take place under the influence of a mental disorder or drug abuse. Many suicide attempts are also made impulsively, before the person has had time to think things through.

It's impossible to stop a person who's made their mind up to commit suicide.
False! 85-90 per cent of those who have made serious suicide attempts do not complete it. Many suicide survivors ask themselves: "What was I thinking?"

Having a stomach pump is so nasty that it deters people from taking new overdoses.
False! A person close to suicide who takes an overdose doesn't reason like that. The only thought they have is a desire to escape their anguish or pain, where an overdose is the only way out.

Sweden has one of the world's highest suicide rates.
False! Sweden's suicide statistics are comparable to the rest of Europe. On a 90-nation list of percentage suicide rates amongst people between the ages of 15 and 19, Sweden ranks no. 57.

Everyone who tries to take their own life must be sick.
True! There's almost always some form of mental illness behind suicide, but it can also be triggered in young people by events that, to an adult, might seem trivial.

Sources:  Barn i utsatta livssituationer, chapter by Britta Alin Åkerman (editor Jane Brodin), Gleerups 2008. | Oxford textbook of suicidology and suicide prevention. A global perspective by Danuta Wasserman and Camilla Wasserman, Oxford University Press 2009. | National Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention of Mental lll-Health (NASP).

Advice to adults living or working around young people

  • Always take time to listen to young people when they want to talk, even if it's in the middle of the night or when you're busy.
  • Let them know that they can and should talk about their feelings.
  • Don't belittle their feelings by saying things like "a lot of people feel that".
  • Don't be afraid to talk openly about difficult emotions and experiences.
  • Take their depressive symptoms seriously.
  • Promote good relations with the school/parents.
  • School staff should show that they care about young people by finding out the reasons for their truancy, and by making time to talk to those who show signs of depression.
  • Include information about suicide and mental health in all school subjects (e.g. the effects of stress on the body in biology classes, existential issues in Swedish/English classes and suicide statistics in maths classes).

Warning signals, protective factors, risk factors

Warning signals

  • Poor sleeping habits.
  • Poor/abnormal eating habits.
  • Extreme behavioural changes (e.g. a deterioration in school performance).
  • Talk about suicide.
  • Truancy.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Lack of interest in leisure activities.
  • Self-harming.
  • Signs of depression (e.g. feeling down, irritation, concentration problems and low self-esteem).

Protective factors

Individual:

  • Positive self-esteem.
  • Communicative skills.
  • Good lifestyle as regards diet, exercise, sleep, alcohol and smoking.

Social:

  • Good family relations.
  • Good relations to other adults.
  • Good relations with peers.

Societal:

  • Ability to find work.
  • Ability to find a place to live.
  • Ability to engage in physical and cultural activities.

Risk factors

Individual:

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Excessive responsibility-taking.

Social:

  • Relational problems in the family/insecure childhood.
  • Bullying.
  • Friends and relatives with mental problems.

Societal:

  • Difficulties finding work.
  • Difficulties finding a place to live.
  • The absence of a sense of belonging.