When I was a kid, I don’t remember hearing of any teenagers ever committing suicide. My how times have changed!
Did you know that the suicide rate for young people aged 15-24 has nearly tripled since 1960? In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year 4,600 individuals in this age group kill themselves. Suicide has become “the third leading cause of death in adolescents and the second leading cause of death among college-age youth” (https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/depression-teens).
Here some alarming stats related to teenage suicide in the United States:
- Every 100 minutes a teen takes his or her own life (suicide.org)
- 81% of teen suicide deaths are males; 19% are females
- 16% of students (in 9-12th grade) consider suicide; 13% create a plan; 8% try to take their lives
- 157,000 self-inflicted injuries receive ER care annually
- Top three methods: firearm (45%), suffocation (40%), and poisoning (8%)
- Native American/Alaskan Native youth have highest rates of suicide fatalities
- Hispanic youths attempt suicide more than black and white peers
- Students struggle with suicide more during the first two years of high school (ages 14-16) and drop off by junior and senior years
Some adolescents are at greater risk for suicide than others. The known risk factors include the following (https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/todays-teens-depressed-ever/):
- Abuse and/or neglect
- Chronic illness or other physical conditions
- Family history of depression or mental illness
- Untreated mental or substance-abuse problems
- Trauma or disruptions at home, including divorce and death of a parent
Additional risk factors include such things as:
- History of previous suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide
- Stressful life event
- Easy access to lethal methods
- Exposure to suicidal behavior of others (e.g., at school)
Experts say teens seem to feel more hopeless than in previous years. Tony Jurich, a professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, says, “Teens think they are invincible, so when they feel psychological pain, they are more apt to feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and the belief that they have no control over their lives.” Jurich calls these feelings of hopelessness and helplessness “the Molotov cocktail that triggers teen suicide.”
During the last decade, the arrival of social media and the resulting “hyper-connectivity” has wielded a menacing impact in the lives of teenagers. The constant pressure of personal comparison between their own “boring” and “mundane” life with the idealized, “glamorous” and “exciting” lives of their peers is a source of discouragement and depression.
Social media is often “used as asocial barometer, a measurement of achievements and failures. Teens can feel pressure to portray an idealized version of themselves on social media sites—a phenomenon that has given rise to its own malady, called ‘Facebook depression,’ in which people feel down after visiting the site” (https://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/fall-winter-2017/articles/the-rise-of-teen-depression). It’s hard enough being a teen and having to endure hormonal upheaval, peer pressure, and high academic expectations, without the added pressures of constantly comparing their lives to others online.
Now factor in the insidious presence of cyber-bullying where practically, “Every embarrassing moment, every snippet of gossip, has the potential to be recorded, posted, and commented upon,” and we have a recipe for disaster (https://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/fall-winter-2017/articles/the-rise-of-teen-depression). There’s no longer a safe-zone for teenagers where they can hide out and be left alone in privacy and peace. Once something gets shared on the Internet it is there permanently, sometimes being shared thousands of times. Around 16% of all high-schoolers say they are “cyber-bullied” through email, chat, instant messaging, social media or texting. Bully victims are 3-5 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.
Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warnings (https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/depression-teens). Pay attention to these warning signs:
- Signs of depression
- Changes in mood
- Obsession with death (expressed wish to die; writing about death / drawing images)
- Poems, essays and drawings that refer to death
- Giving away belongings
- Dramatic change in personality or appearance
- Irrational, bizarre behavior
- Overwhelming sense of guilt, shame or rejection
- Changed eating or sleeping patterns
- Severe drop in school performance
- Expressed a wish to die
- Impulsivity and risk-taking (e.g. substance abuse or self-injury)
- Expressing they can’t handle things anymore
- Saying things would be better without them
- Victim of bullying
- Suicide threats, direct and indirect
So how may we as adults help suicidal teenagers? First, take the time to offer help and listen to them nonjudgmentally. Encourage depressed teenagers to talk about their thoughts, feelings and concerns.
Second, trust your instincts and intuition. If you sense that a teenager might be thinking about hurting himself or herself, seek help immediately. This is an appropriate time to break confidentiality because a life may be in imminent danger and safety must take precedence above everything else.
Third, listen carefully to what the young person is saying and/or not saying. If you sense immediate danger and/or suicidal ideation, ask direct questions to find out what the teenager is thinking. Ask: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” By confronting the secret and exposing darkness to light, it will often lose much of its momentum. Silence, on the other hand, can be deadly. A common myth is that talking directly with at-risk teens about suicide will make them more likely to hurt themselves. In reality, the precise opposite is true! You will be giving them an essential outlet to release some of their pent up pain and psychological pressure.
Fourth, seek external professional help. Don’t try to handle this issue on your own. Find capable people who possess the requisite expertise and experience to address the situation head-on and help the suicidal teenager. Also alert key adults in the young persons’ life, such as parents, grandparents, friends, ministers, and teachers.
Fifth, always err on the side of caution. Take all threats of suicide seriously. While it may be a cry for help or an attempt to get attention, we have no way of knowing what the teenager might actually do if ignored or left up to his or her own devices. Recognizing the red flags could save a life. Under no circumstances should that young person be left alone, but they should be taken to the ER if they are actively suicidal for a crisis assessment (https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/depression-teens).
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Remember (or remind the one you love) that other people do care. If you are not in immediate danger, but want to talk with someone about your suicidal feelings, you can call the National Hopeline Network for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-784-2433.
(This article originally appeared in The Jackson Sun on March 22, 2019.)