According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), suicide rates have experienced a notable rise over the course of the past two decades. Between 1999 and 2017, adjusted suicide rates have risen from 10.5 per 100,000 to 14.0 per 100,000. Most of this rise has occurred between 2006 and 2017 (roughly 2% per year). Though suicide still ranks as the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, the 33% overall increase is clearly a cause for concern.
Among teenagers in the United States, suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death. While teen (15-24) suicide rates are actually lower than the rates for individuals in the middle aged (45-64) demographic, much of the recent concern is from the fact that suicide rates for teens have nearly doubled.
Suicide is a tragic event, not only for the person involved, but for everyone else involved in their life. Due to the complex experiences, biological changes, and social pressures teens face every day, carefully working to decrease teen suicide rates ought to be a high priority. While teen treatment centers and organizations such as Healthy People 2020 have certainly been making a major difference, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
In this article, we will offer a comprehensive analysis of why—exactly—teen suicide rates have been on the rise. This is a trend that is occurring not only in the United States, but also occurring elsewhere around the developed world. This article will also discuss how parents can determine if their teen is at-risk of suicidal behavior. By being proactive and offering support to those in need, you can really make a difference in someone’s life.
What are the common risk factors of suicide?
There are many different things that can cause an individual to commit suicide. Because the underlying cause of a suicide is only sometimes known (a note, disclosure to a friend, etc.), collecting statistics has certainly been quite difficult. However, the Mayo Clinic—along with many other organizations—has made an ongoing effort to monitor causes of suicide in order to prevent future deaths.
- An ongoing history of mental health conditions, particularly depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and schizophrenia
- Current legal, financial, or situational problems
- Substance abuse disorders
- Emotional conflicts, such as issues with a family member or romantic partner
- Recent tragic events, such as the loss of a loved one, exposure to other suicides (directly or indirectly), exposure to violence, and domestic abuse
- Medical issues such as an unwanted pregnancy (this is particularly a risk factor for teens)
- Various forms of bullying, particularly bullying related to an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity
Individuals who are currently experiencing one or more of the issues mentioned above are statistically more likely to commit suicide. Still, the act of taking one’s own life is a very personal decision that even the world’s best psychologists may not be able to fully explain. Often times, it is a combination of many overlapping events that will trigger an individual to commit suicide.
Why have suicide rates been increasing since 1999?
As stated, the suicide rate has increased by about 33% percent since 1999 and the rate of increase has been particularly concentrated over the past ten years. While a small percentage of this increase may be attributed to changes in cause of death reporting (fewer deaths are now labelled as “unknown”), it is still clear that suicide is a very real social issue. There are many competing explanations as to why this change has occurred, each with varying amounts of support.
- The proliferation of social media: while it may have a few benefits, social media has exposed teens to distorted realities, impossible standards of beauty, and even certain communities where suicide is glorified. While you probably don’t need to ban your teen from using social media altogether, this is a unique risk factor.
- Changes in patterns of substance abuse: though substance abuse rates have actually decreased over the past two decades, the intensity of available substances and the amount consumed per active user have both increased. This means many more individuals who have begun abusing substances are likely to reach the “tipping point.”
- Increased levels of depression: depression is highly correlated with suicide ideation. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of adolescents reporting depression related symptoms increased by 37%.
According to professor of psychology Jean Twenge, teens are uniquely at risk to suffer from these—and other—ongoing social trends. In a recent statement, Twenge concluded “Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations.”
How can I tell if my teen is at risk of suicide?
In response to the fact the suicide rate has been increasing—among all age demographics, but particularly among teens—psychologists have recognized that it is important for individuals to be proactive and try to prevent suicidal behaviors in advance. While it is common for teens to occasionally feel down, there are quite a few behaviors that you should keeping an eye out for.
- Signs of mental health disorders, particularly depression
- Changes in attitudes, negative views of the world, consistent feelings of hopelessness
- Fascinations with death and constantly talking about death
- Patterns of self harm such as cutting or previous suicide attempts
- Exposure to traumatic experiences
- Rejection—whether from their family or from their peers—of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity
- Negative social issues such as a lack of friends, loneliness, and bullying
Your teen may not disclose everything they have been feeling, which can make it difficult to identify if they are at risk of suicide. Helping your teen combat mental health issues will need to be an ongoing process.
What can I do to make a difference?
Many parents will experience social blame following the suicide of their child, which is both a damaging and reckless way to address the issues at hand. Still, that does not mean there is nothing a parent can do to make a difference. Even just a few small actions can have a tremendous impact on your teen’s overall well-being.
- Love your child unconditionally. The world can be a very cruel place; as a parent, you can be the rock that your teenager needs.
- Accept your child for who you are: parental rejection is one of the largest reasons why gender and sexual minorities commit suicide at disproportionately high rates. Listening to your child and accepting what they have to say will be very important.
- Keep an open dialogue: many parents are uncomfortable talking about things such as depression and abuse. But while these topics may be uncomfortable, you still play an important role in helping your teen understand their world.
- Don’t dismiss early warning signs: it is not uncommon for parents to dismiss signs of suicide ideation as “ordinary teenage angst.” As soon as these signs begin to emerge, it will be crucial that you pay close attention to your teen’s behaviors.
- Check in on your teen: most teens who are depressed will be hesitant to share their feelings with their parents. By asking a few, pointed questions, you can gauge your teen’s current emotional state.
- Connect your teen with the necessary resources: counseling, group therapy, and anti-depressants are just a few of the resources that can help prevent suicide. Because your teen is unlikely to seek out these resources on their own, it will be up to you to show them the way.
Other actions—such as limiting social media use, intervening over substance abuse, and scheduling regular pediatric visits—can also make a major difference. Because your teen is a unique individual, they may need personalized care.
Suicide is a tragic event that no parent—nor teenager—should ever have to endure. The increased suicide rate is certainly alarming and is a unique problem of the 21st Century. As research continues to advance and psychologists identify further prevention mechanisms, this major public issue can eventually be overcome.
Disclosure: if you or your teen are having suicidal thoughts, please do not hesitate to call the 24 hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1-800-273-8255