Suicide in children and young adults has been a public health crisis in the United States for years — and new data suggests it is getting worse.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Friday found the national suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. was mostly stable at the start of the 2000s. However, it then increased by 57% from 2007 to 2018. That represents an increase from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2007 to 10.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2018.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among American children and young adults. There are twice as many suicides in this country as there are homicides.
Yet mental health experts warn it has not been adequately addressed.
“For this particular generation, one of the things we see is an uptick in a lot of the risk factors for suicidality,” said Isaiah Pickens, a clinical psychologist and the CEO of iOpening Enterprises. “That can include anxiety and depression.”
He believes these can be “magnified” by social media, but cautioned that suicide is a complex problem with many contributing factors.
According to the new CDC report, Alaska had the highest youth suicide rate, followed by South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico. The overall rate was lowest in the Northeast region — although several of those states saw a relatively high uptick in suicide deaths, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The national report simply tracked trends in youth suicide rates; it did not provide any insights into why those changes may have occurred.
Of course, the new findings come amid the COVID-19 crisis, when mental health experts have sounded the alarm about the potential impact on children. In a survey published in early summer, 7 out of 10 teens said they were struggling with their mental health in some way during the pandemic. It is unclear how, if at all, the pandemic might influence rates of youth suicide and suicidal thoughts, but there is concern it could worsen current trends.
“We don’t talk enough about suicide,” said Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Especially now, when kids are feeling so disrupted in their routines and remarkably lonely compared to the way they’re usually feeling in a nonpandemic situation.”
Although the factors contributing to the continued rise in youth suicide in the U.S. are complex, experts say they also point to the need for parents to proactively speak to their children about this public health crisis — without fear that mentioning suicide will somehow plant an idea in their head. One conversation will not “solve” suicide, but it can make it easier for a child or young adult to open up.
“Approaching a child’s life with curiosity, instead of judgment, is a huge first step,” Pickens said.
Parents should look also out for warning signs, such as significant changes in their children’s behavior, including their sleep patterns, or withdrawal. They might appear more irritable and stop finding pleasure in activities and relationships they once enjoyed.
Parents and caregivers should also restrict access to firearms, alcohol and medication. Any type of suicidal statements should be taken seriously and warrant professional help.
“We have the ‘sex talk,’ we have the ‘drugs talk.’ We need to be having the ‘suicide talk’ with every child,” Prinstein said. “One out of every 5 kids reports they’ve seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months in the high school years. In the same way that we have conversations about other risks that our kids might be exposed to, it must be discussed openly and clearly.”