When we first hear any news of suicide, the image of a dejected, lonely, middle-aged man easily comes to mind. This image, although supported by statistics, is one that is fueled by age-long stereotypes. And the fact that we (or many of us, at least) can’t get it out of our heads just takes our sights away from a rapidly growing problem.
What the stats say
Statistics prove that younger groups have consistently lower suicide rates than older adults. The suicide rate of 13.15 among youths aged 15-24 still looks like a far cry from the 19.72 among adults between 45-54 years. When you observe the historical trends, however, you’re tempted to say it’s only a matter of time before this gap is closed. The CDC reports that cases of suicide among teens and young adults have nearly tripled since 1940. It is currently the third leading cause of death among 10-24-year-olds in the United States, boasting a higher total than the combined 5th to 10th leading causes of death. Suicide claims more youth lives than cancer, heart diseases, birth defects, pneumonia, influenza, stroke, AIDS, and chronic lung disease combined.
We could go on with the numbers, but as shocking as they are, they could still be dismissed as ‘just more statistics’. Until you hear the case of the 9-year-old boy in Coloradowho took his own life after coming out about his sexual orientation, or the 12-year-old girl in New Jerseywho killed herself following months of ‘ongoing and systematic bullying’ according to her family. More of such news creep into our newsfeed on a fearfully regular basis. We can’t but agree that sweeping the issue under the carpet is no longer a way out. Successful suicide attemptsare only a microcosm and they do not fully reflect the bigger picture. Only a handful of youth that attempt suicide actually die. Data from the CDC further shows that about 16% of high school students in the country reported seriously considering suicide within the 12 months preceding the research. 13% of the students devised a viable plan and 8% actually attempted it. 157,000 youths are admitted into emergency care departments of hospitals due to self-inflicted injuries. That’s an average of 430 youth per day. The only way we stand a chance of winning this war is by talking about it. And there is no better time to talk about it than NOW.
What factors put youth at risk?
There are a lot of risk factors for youth suicide. However, the presence of a risk factor doesn’t mean an individual would attempt or consider attempting suicide. Some common risk factors are listed below:
- History of depression or other mental health issues
- A family history of suicide
- Alcohol and drug use
- Access to lethal means
- Reduced opportunity for developing social connections
Trying to track which gender is at greater risk presents a paradox. 81% of suicide deaths among youth are males. However, surveys show that more girls report attempting suicide when compared with the male gender.
Aside from the known risk factors, a lot of socio-cultural factors have been associated with the rising suicide rates among today’s youth. The popularity of smartphones and cyber-bullying is often cited as one of the potential reasons behind this rise. Mental health specialists also note that the rate of teen depression has skyrocketed when the figures are compared with similar data from a few decades ago. It also appears that the technology-savvy generation finds more difficult to build meaningful social connections offline. Once the cyberspace becomes cruel to them, there is nothing to fall back on.
What needs to be done?
The problem of suicide is one of those challenges where all efforts have to be concentrated on prevention. Awareness and advocacy top the list of current preventive measures. It is hoped that the more we talk about this menace, the more it is demystified, and the greater our chances of stemming the worrisome tide.
Parents, teachers, and other stakeholders need to be aware of the warning signs so they can seek help as early as possible. Statistics show that 4 out of 5 youths who attempted suicide displayed at least one warning sign. Some of the common warning signals are listed below:
- Talking about or threatening suicide
- Increased substance abuse
- Withdrawing from people or activities that normally interest them
- Unusual expression of anger
- Inexplicable mood swings
- Feelings of hopelessness or purposelessness
- Unusually reckless behavior
In addition to knowing the warning signs and advocating for prevention-based programs, responding to a completed suicide is crucial. Schools, especially, need training and other supports to address reactions, at the district level, through the school, to the student, and finally to the family. Psychological first aidis one of the “go to” practices to support schools, students and families during these crises. Implementing psychological first aid in response to a completed suicide can support teens with existing mental health concerns affected by the loss, as well as assist youth who may be on a similar path (suicide contagion) obtain the help they need to “do something different.”
Parents and guardians should always show concern for their children or wards. It is important to establish a connection with them and keep the communication channels open. Youth should also offer support to their friends and show kindness to everyone. If you notice any of the warning signs listed above or any unusual behavior at all, do not hesitate to get help. All of us will need to “do something different” to be part of the solution. Together, we can beat this.
By Jennifer Hixon, PH.D is the Corporate Clinical Director for Perimeter Healthcare