The United States is in the grips of a deadly and disastrous trend: growing suicide rates among teens and young people. The number of teen suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and self harm continue to increase, more than doubling from less than half a percent in 2008 to 2 percent in 2015. In 2016, suicide became the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10-24. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted a spike in suicide rates among 10-14 year olds, and, distressingly, among females in that age group, self-inflicted injury rates have gone up 18.8 percent between 2009 and 2015.
A new study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology concludes that since the late 2000s mental health for teens has declined dramatically, stating that in 2017, one in eight Americans aged 12-25 experienced a major depressive episode. The study also found a 63 percent increase in young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 reporting symptoms of depression between 2009 and 2017.
There are many theories as to why these numbers have taken a sharp uptick in the U.S. even as other developed countries have not seen a similar spike. In fact, according to the World Health Association, suicide rates fell in 12 of 13 Western European countries between 2000 and 2012. In many places this drop was 20 percent or more.
Stress is potentially a major contributor and teens are under more of it than ever with noted increases in academic, athletic and social pressures. Stress can lead to depression and mood disorders, cited as the leading causes of suicide. Additionally, since there is a growing awareness of mental health and behaviors associated with suicide among teenagers and their parents, as well as more reporting of incidents, these may be contributing to the recorded increase.
The most common cause health professionals point to when discussing the growing rates of suicidal behaviors in teenagers is the increased use of technology, specifically social media. The rise of social media has been linked to an associated increase in negative communication, poor self image and cyberbullying. Another outcome of teenagers constantly being on their phones and video game consoles is a lack of face-to-face interactions, which can also lead to isolation and depression.
However, many mental health professionals believe social media usage is only one factor in a complex situation. They cite the lack of availability of affordable mental healthcare professionals and have even gone as far as calling the situation a systemic public health crisis. Following the 2008 financial crisis, mental health budgets nationwide were cut by $4 billion. This lack of social welfare spending compared to other developed countries as well as the well-documented growth of income inequality in this country have both been found to be related to higher suicide rates. The U.S. spends 18.8 percent of GDP on social welfare compared to 25 percent for most developed nations.
Additionally, many insurance companies only cover a portion of an office visit to a therapist, leading health professionals to require payment up front. As a result, there is not enough affordable help to meet demand. To combat the growing phenomenon, teenagers need access to affordable mental health professionals and support services. Talking to an adult can also help – studies show that talking about suicide does not encourage the behavior, and people shouldn’t be afraid to address it.
If you or someone you know needs help, or you want to do something to help the cause, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) for free, confidential support or contact the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.