According to research, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the U.S. (The leading cause of death, no surprise here, is gun violence.) Per the CDC’s 2021 Youth Behavior Risk Survey, there are high levels of hopelessness across all ages and demographics. The data shows that one in three teenage girls and one in seven teenage boys “seriously” considered suicide.
In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 20 percent of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide and nine percent have made an attempt to take their lives. It doesn’t matter how popular a teen is, how good a student, how athletic they are, whether they’re the prom queen, the captain of the chess team, or their soccer team. (In the March 1 death of Stanford soccer captain Katie Meyer, who was only 22, her friends and parents said they didn’t even know she was depressed.)
For young people the suicide of one teen from a group can be of particular concern because for teenagers, suicide can be contagious. In fact, according to a 2016 review published by the American Association of Suicidology, teenagers with a friend or family member who died of suicide were at significantly higher risk of suicide than those without a suicide close to them.
‘The things that make them vulnerable are where they stand socially and where they stand developmentally,’ said UCLA Health’s Dr. Carl Fleisher, who is now at Boston Child Study Center in Los Angeles.
Developmentally, he explains, teen’s judgment and decision-making abilities are still coming online. The prefrontal cortex — the brain’s executive control center — doesn’t fully develop until one’s mid-20s.
That makes young people more impulsive, Dr. Fleisher says: “They’re not going to weigh risks and consequences or values in quite the same way that older folks will.”
While teen suicide rates are rising, the highest rates of suicide are among young adults 25-34. There are some hypotheses about why this is; some of it may be that they don’t have as strong, or nearly as long social connections as older adults do.
Sociologists say that someone who is married has a long-term partner, has children or grandchildren, may be in a different mental place than someone who has moved out of school, away from home, or to a strange city. They might not have made deep friendships to replace the friendships they left behind, adjusting to new roommates, or living entirely alone.
U.S. suicide rates were growing even before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the suicide rates in U.S. preteens increased by more than 40 percent from 2009 to 2019. The pandemic isolation and fear made everything worse.
For teens in high school. social circles can change; one minute a teen is in the group, the next they might be dropped. Every possible circumstance has been exacerbated by the social isolation of the pandemic; making disconnection even more of a problem.
How to Help Those at Risk
The experts say that not everyone who considers suicide gives out warning signs. many can appear happy, and well-adjusted. Those who have lost teens and young adults to suicide often say they didn’t even know the person was suffering from depression.
Teens who have been praised for leadership, or who appear most self-reliant often are the ones unable to appear weak or to ask for help. They may need it the most.
There are stress times (and some would say stress years) for high schoolers — during college application or decision time, during high activity times when school projects, exams, sports calendars, and school plays all seem to happen at once.
The experts point out that rather than waiting for a teen or young adult to speak up or ask for help — ask them if they need it. Ask them questions. Tell them it’s OK to ask for help. Make it OK to discuss mental health. In fact, these experts reassure teachers and parents not to fear that talking about depression or suicide could somehow encourage self-harming behavior
“What doesn’t seem to increase risk of suicide is talking about the importance of mental health, talking about the importance of reaching out to people who are struggling, or if you’re struggling, reaching out for help,” adds Fleisher. “Talking about suicide in general and talking about depression is not going to make things worse.”
For teens and for anyone facing a mental health crisis, there is help. Say something. Ask for help. Ask someone to ask you how you feel. Tell them.
If you or a friend or loved one is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255