As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, teen anxiety and depression rates are rising steeply. In fact, seven out of every 10 teenagers are struggling with their mental health right now. And when depression and anxiety go up, teen suicide rates also go up. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and this year it may be more important than ever before for parents, healthcare providers, teachers, and teenagers themselves to understand the key elements of teen suicide prevention.
Suicide Prevention Awareness Month is an opportunity for mental health and youth organizations to bring this topic out into the open, so teens know that they are not alone. As part of this effort, Newport Academy is partnering for the fourth year in a row with To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) to amplify the conversation about teen suicide prevention and to take action to reverse the growing rate of youth suicide. TWLOHA is a non-profit dedicated to combating depression and suicide among teens and providing resources for suicidal teens.
TWLOHA’s 2020 campaign, titled “Worth Living For,” invites people around the country and the world to spread awareness about teen suicide prevention via social media, donating or fundraising for the cause, and to share personal videos about why life is worth living for. Last year’s TWLOHA campaign, “You Make Today Better,” reached more than 9.5 million people and raised $250,000 to support treatment and recovery.
Current Suicide Rates for Adolescents
Experts say it’s too soon to tell whether suicide rates are already spiking as a result of the pandemic. But they warn that the risks are significant. The authors of a recent study in the Lancet on suicide risk and prevention during the pandemic note that suicides went up during the 1918 Spanish flu and 2003 SARS outbreaks, as well as after the 2008 recession.
“Suicide is likely to become a more pressing concern as the pandemic spreads and has longer-term effects on the general population, the economy, and vulnerable groups. Preventing suicide therefore needs urgent consideration.”
—June 2020 Lancet report
Even before the pandemic began, the youth suicide rate in the United States was the highest in recorded history. According to an April 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates have risen by 35 percent since the start of the 21st century. And the rates among teens are of particular concern.
Studies examining depression and suicide among teens reveal the following troubling statistics.
- In 2017, the suicide rate for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 was 14.46 per 100,000—the highest recorded rate ever.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States among ages 15–24.
- Current teen suicidal stats show that 17 percent of high school students have seriously considered suicide, and 8 percent have made failed suicide attempts.
- More than half of the teens who try to commit suicide have never been given a mental health diagnosis.
- Compared to heterosexual youth, the rate of teen suicide is 3.5 times greater for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.
- The number of teens admitted to children’s hospitals as a result of suicidal thoughts or self-harm has more than doubled during the last decade.
- The United States faces a severe shortage of practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists, with fewer than 17 providers available per 100,000 children.
Sources: National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, American Association of Suicidology
Statistics Show the Danger to Teen Girls
The 2019 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), pinpointed a spike in suicides among older teenage boys—up to 17.9 per 1000,000 in 2017. However, many of the recent teen suicide statistics focus on teen girls.
Since 2000, the suicide rate among girls and young women has doubled. In particular, there has been a sharp increase in teen girls poisoning themselves. In 2018, close to 60,000 girls ages 10 to 18 tried to poison themselves. Such poisonings include intentional overdoses of pharmaceutical or illicit drugs.
Teen girls learn to “put on a pretty face,” hiding the pain within that leads to suicidal behavior. Hence, suicides by female adolescents often are unexpected. Furthermore, impulsivity is a key risk factor in suicide, and teen girls are likely to be impulsive. In addition, recent research shows that the black-and-white thinking patterns of teen girls may make them more prone to suicidal ideation and behavior.
Let’s take a look at the statistics:
- Suicide rates among teen girls hit a 40-year high in 2015.
- The suicide rate for teen girls in 2017 was 14 suicides per 100,000.
- Teen girls are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than teenage boys.
- The primary suicide methods for teen girls are suffocation, poison, and drug overdoses.
- For girls ages 16 to 18, the poisoning rate nearly doubled in the past five years.
Risk Factors and Causes of Teen Suicide
Many factors can contribute to the risk of adolescent suicide. Risk factors do not cause teen suicide, but they may contribute to a teen’s likelihood of making a suicide attempt.
The top reasons for teenage suicide include the following:
- Depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders
- Family history of suicide
- A history of substance abuse
- Exposure to violence, abuse, or other trauma
- Social isolation or bullying
- Losing a family member through death or divorce
- Financial or job loss
- Conflict within relationships
- Starting or changing psychotropic medications
- Feeling stigmatized
- Lack of support.
Suicidal Thoughts and Teen Suicide Facts
For every person who attempts or completes suicide, many more suffer from suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation is defined as having suicidal thoughts—thoughts of ending one’s life. This is much more common than we might imagine.
However, thinking about suicide does not necessarily mean that a teen will make an actual suicide attempt. Many teens may think about suicide, but their suicidal thoughts do not progress to suicide plans or suicide attempts.
Moreover, suicidal thoughts can also become a cognitive habit, an ongoing mental pattern. Such thoughts often result from depression, or from a desire to escape a situation that seems impossible to handle.
Suicidal thoughts can quickly escalate to a suicide attempt, so teens suffering from suicidal ideation need treatment before any actual planning begins.
Suicide Warning Signs
There are ways to recognize whether someone is considering a suicide attempt. Here are some of the warning signs.
- Talking or posting on social media about suicide or wanting to die
- Feeling hopeless or trapped
- Increasing use of drugs and/or alcohol
- Changes in weight, appearance, or sleep habits
- Gathering drugs, sharp objects, firearms, or other items that could be used to commit suicide or self-harm
- Isolating themselves and withdrawing from friends
- Searching online for methods of committing suicide
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye, and giving away prized possessions
- Trouble concentrating and/or a drop in academic performance
- Migraines, frequent stomachaches, or other physical complaints
- Risk-taking or self-destructive behavior
- Suddenly becoming calm or cheerful after a long period of depression.
If you see any of these signs, take the following actions:
- Do not leave the person alone.
- Remove anything that could be used in a suicide attempt, including ﬁrearms, alcohol, drugs, razors, or other sharp objects.
- Call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Suicide support can take the form of a suicide prevention hotline. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline runs a network of suicide hotline crisis centers. Moreover, they provide information about taking suicide precautions.
Ways to Prevent Suicide
Along with risk factors, there are also factors that protect against teen suicide. These include the following:
- Access to treatment for mental health, physical health, and substance abuse disorders, including suicide assessment when warranted
- Family and community support
- Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
- Tools for coping and emotional self-regulation
- Cultural and/or religious beliefs that discourage suicide.
Suicide can be the tragic result of untreated depression. Thus, treatment for depression is a vital factor in teen suicide prevention.
With suicidal depression, different forms of individual therapy contribute toward sustainable healing. Furthermore, such treatment is also essential for suicide survivors.
Teen Suicide Prevention: Treatment Approaches
- Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) is specifically designed to address depression and the risk of teen suicide, by repairing ruptured relationships between parents and teens. As a result, young people feel safe enough to turn to their parents when they are experiencing suicidal thoughts.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) brings clarity to what a teen is thinking and feeling. CBT identifies the emotions that often result in a sense of isolation. Consequently, it identifies the self-defeating thoughts and assumptions that make life more difficult. CBT provides valuable insight for the depressed teen.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) provides specific skills like mindfulness and emotional regulation. These skills can be used right away and become stronger with practice.
- Experiential modalities, such as art therapy and music therapy, give teens ways to process their emotions through self-expression and body-based practices.
Additionally, developing positive coping and relaxation skills for managing stress can help protect teens against suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
In conclusion, teen suicide is preventable. The cure is awareness, knowledge, and access to resources. Efforts like TWLOHA’s “Worth Living For” campaign make a powerful positive impact on teen suicide prevention. As individuals, as organizations, and as a society, we must do everything we can to prevent a spike in pandemic-related teen suicides and reverse the adolescent mental health crisis.
“We’re honored to have Newport Academy join us as a strategic partner again this year for the Worth Living For campaign. The Newport team not only helps us raise critical funds by providing a generous $10,000 grant to provide counseling scholarships, they also lend their clinical expertise and compassion to the conversation we’re hosting online. We know that every day they are walking with families and people who are fighting for healing and recovery.””
—Lindsay Kolsch, TWLOHA Co-Executive Director