Background: Suicide is a leading cause of death and a complex clinical outcome. Here, we summarize the current state of research pertaining to suicidal thoughts and behaviors in youth. We review their definitions/measurement and phenomenology, epidemiology, potential etiological mechanisms, and psychological treatment and prevention efforts.
Results: We identify key patterns and gaps in knowledge that should guide future work. Regarding epidemiology, the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among youth varies across countries and sociodemographic populations. Despite this, studies are rarely conducted cross-nationally and do not uniformly account for high-risk populations. Regarding etiology, the majority of risk factors have been identified within the realm of environmental and psychological factors (notably negative affect-related processes), and most frequently using self-report measures. Little research has spanned across additional units of analyses including behavior, physiology, molecules, cells, and genes. Finally, there has been growing evidence in support of select psychotherapeutic treatment and prevention strategies, and preliminary evidence for technology-based interventions.
Conclusions: There is much work to be done to better understand suicidal thoughts and behaviors among youth. We strongly encourage future research to: (1) continue improving the conceptualization and operationalization of suicidal thoughts and behaviors; (2) improve etiological understanding by focusing on individual (preferably malleable) mechanisms; (3) improve etiological understanding also by integrating findings across multiple units of analyses and developing short-term prediction models; (4) demonstrate greater developmental sensitivity overall; and (5) account for diverse high-risk populations via sampling and reporting of sample characteristics. These serve as initial steps to improve the scientific approach, knowledge base, and ultimately prevention of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among youth.