According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates have gone up by 33% since 1999, and suicide led to one death every 11 minutes in 2019. In the United States as a whole, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, but among those aged 10-34, it is the second leading cause of death.
Parents of adolescents should be aware of adolescent suicide rates, as data shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the age group of 10-14 and 15-24, falling being only unintentional injuries as the top cause of death in these age groups. As a parent, it is helpful to be aware of suicide trends and what you can do to help your own children.
Trends in Youth Suicide Rates
According to the most recent data, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in youth suicide rates. Between 2007-2009 and 2016-2018, the youth suicide rate increased by 47.1 percent across the United States, with some states seeing even more significant increases. For example, in New Hampshire, there was a 110 percent increase in suicide rates in the age group of 10-24, whereas Oregon saw a 79.3 percent increase, and Georgia saw a 76.3 percent increase. On the other and of the spectrum, Maryland and Mississippi had comparatively low increases in youth suicide, at 21.7 percent and 26.6 percent, respectively.
Alarmingly, there was also an increase in teen suicide rates following the 2017 release of the popular Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which documents the struggles of a teen girl who takes her own life and creates a cassette tape detailing the reasons why she made this choice. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, there was a 29 percent increase in suicide among youth aged 10 to 17 the month following the show’s release. In contrast, there was no increase among older age groups. This increase was seen even after accounting for a trend in increasing suicide rates that already existed before the show’s release.
The Impact of COVID-19
The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may be contributing to increases in teen suicides. According to one study in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, India, the United States, and the United Kingdom experienced the most teen suicides during the COVID-19 lockdowns between February 2020 and July 2020 and reported reasons for suicide included psychological distress, loneliness, depression, online schooling, and academic-related stress. Teens, unfortunately, are not immune to the stress associated with living through a pandemic and adjusting to changes in routine.
Research from the Children’s Hospital Association has also found an increase in youth suicide rates. While hospital and emergency room visits related to suicide doubled at children’s hospitals between 2008 and 2015, during summer 2020, in the wake of the pandemic, visits related to suicide attempts rose by almost 20 percent.
Causes for Increases in Youth Suicide
While the effects of COVID-19 isolation have emerged as a cause of increased suicide rates among youth, the reality is that youth suicides were on the rise before the pandemic. This has led experts to explore factors associated with the rising suicide rate among teens.
According to a study in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the following contribute to the risk of youth suicide:
- Mental health disorders: Research shows that a majority of youth who suffer from suicide have a mental health condition, with mood disorders like depression being the most common contributors to suicide risk.
- Previous suicide attempt: Having attempted suicide in the past increases the risk of future suicide, especially for boys.
- Personality: Traits such as impulsivity and difficulty with problem-solving are linked to suicide among children.
- Family life: Family factors, including depression or drug abuse within the family, suicide attempt by a family member, genetics, poor communication between family members, and violence, increase the risk of teen suicide.
- Life stressors: Distressing events like the loss of a friend or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, rejection from peers, school problems, bullying, abuse, trouble with law enforcement, and physical and sexual abuse are linked to youth suicide.
- Imitation: In some cases, youth suicide may be “contagious” in the sense that teens may imitate the behaviors they see on television or among peers. This means that exposure to cases of suicide in the media or among peers can influence a teen to imitate this behavior. The effect can be greater if the person committing suicide is similar to the teen in terms of age and gender.
- Access to means: To follow through with suicide, youth must have the means to do so. That being said, younger children tend to use hanging, running into traffic, jumping from a high place, or overdosing on prescription medications when completing a suicide attempt, whereas teens, especially boys, may be more drawn to firearms.
Given what is known from research, it may be that increases in suicide and their portrayal in the media, as seen with the series “13 Reasons Why,” have had a contagion effect, leading to a continued rise in youth suicide rates. The increased popularity of social media and strains on the economy can also lead to stressors like bullying, peer rejection, family conflict, and communication breakdown within the family, all of which can increase a teen’s risk of suicide.
What You Can do as a Parent
If you’re the parent of a teen, you must be aware of the warning signs of suicide, as well as what you can do to reduce your teen’s risk of attempting suicide. Experts caution that one of the key warnings of youth suicide is talking about suicide or engaging in self-harm. A teen who is at high risk of suicide may also show a preoccupation with death by writing about suicide or making drawings suggestive of death.
Other warning signs in your teen include the following:
- Extreme sadness
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Isolating from friends and family
- Using drugs or alcohol
- Sleeping all the time or very little
- Being fatigued or low in energy
- Having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
If you notice these warning signs in your child, it is important to take action. Sit down and have a discussion to express your concerns. Not every child who shows these warning signs will think about suicide, but if you intervene at the first sign of trouble, you can prevent your teen’s mental health from worsening. For example, symptoms like losing interest in previous activities, changes in appetite, and irritable behavior can be associated with depression. If left untreated, depression can lead to self-harming and suicidal behavior.
This means for parents that it is critical to keep a system of open communication with your children. Make them comfortable approaching you about their problems, and don’t be afraid to approach the topic of mental health and suicide. If your child shows depression or drug abuse symptoms, it is also important to seek treatment since both are linked to suicide in teens.
If your teen demonstrates signs of a mental health disorder or warning signs of suicidal behavior, reaching out for professional help may be life-saving. For those in the Santa Barbara and Southern California area, Mission Harbor Behavioral Health offers an outpatient program for adolescents. Our program uses multiple types of therapy and involves families in the process, offering weekly family therapy sessions as well as support groups for parents. Reach out to us today.