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Suicide

Why Are So Many Children Dying by Suicide?

Learn the warning signs and how to approach struggling young people.

Key points

  • The number of suicides in children aged 10-14 has nearly tripled in the U.S.
  • Among the 10-24 age group, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
  • Fifty percent of youth suicides are associated with family dynamics, including poor communication, neglect, violence, and substance use.
  • Identifying the warning signs of suicide is key to preventing premature death.
Lucas Alexander/Unsplash
Source: Lucas Alexander/Unsplash

For most of us, the idea of a young child taking his or her own life is unthinkable, but unfortunately, from 2000 to 2017, this was the reality for more than 5,000 families in the United States (5,527 deaths). And this is only for children within the 10-14 age group alone. If we look at 10- to-24-year-olds, the numbers reach the alarming sum of 88,744 people. For this population, suicide is already the second-leading cause of death.

It gets worse: Within the same timeframe, the suicide rates for the 10-14 age group practically tripled, so the natural question to ask ourselves as a society is: What is leading these kids to such high levels of hopelessness?

There is no easy answer, and certainly no one-size-fits-all, but some factors play a part:

  • Family dynamics. Researcher Johan Bilsen argues that approximately 50 percent of youth suicide is related to family factors, including communication patterns, neglect, violence, substance abuse, and a history of mental disorders and suicide.
  • Genetics. Twin studies have shown a higher risk for those with a biological family history of suicide, even in kids who were adopted.
  • Young people are more vulnerable to mental health problems, particularly in adolescence, when they go through changes as they search for their own identity.
  • Brain development is also key to understanding youth behavior. The midbrain, where emotions are processed, is well-developed, while the formation of the connections of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for reasoning, is still underway. This area allows us to plan, moderate social behavior, prioritize, and think logically. As a result, children and adolescents are prone to misinterpret social cues, act on impulse, and engage in risky behavior. This is where suicidal ideation may come into play.

Social Media

Establishing connections online is not necessarily negative. Quite the contrary: The benefits for youth are many. It enables them to improve communication skills, broaden their social network, and develop new interests. The problems arise when the online environment substitutes for real-life relationships and activities; when it highjacks a child's capacity to look outside screens and find joy elsewhere. COVID-19 has exacerbated this tendency but we still have no data or research to show its effect on youth.

In the United States, a 2017 study conducted with 506,820 youngsters between the ages of 13 and 18 found that adolescents who spent more time on screens had a significantly higher likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms or having at least one suicide-related outcome.

Finding a balance between life on and off the screen is crucial. The study found that teens using electronic devices three or more hours daily had a 34 percent higher chance of having at least one suicide-related outcome than those using devices two or fewer hours a day.

Adolescents who visited social media sites every day were 13 percent more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those who used them less often.

According to the research, one factor that contributes to depression is the popularity measures created by Facebook, which may lead to feelings of inadequacy when a young person sees their "friend" having a good time.

The researchers observe, however, that this is not true for all users. If well-adjusted, the effect may be the opposite: a boost in the adolescent’s positive feelings about themselves.

College Students

In its 2018 Student Health Assessment, the American College Health Association asked 88,178 students to identify which factors had negatively affected their academic performance. Stress was at the top of the list with 33.2 percent, followed by anxiety (26.5 percent), sleep difficulties (21.8 percent), and depression (18.7 percent), all of which have a direct impact on mental health. Many do not seek help.

Warren Wong/Unsplash
Source: Warren Wong/Unsplash

The data show a concerning number of youngsters who need professional attention and support from their family and peers, but most people feel that they wouldn’t be equipped to take action. Knowing how to approach this population can make a difference in the manner in which they will respond, so I have gathered some tips on how to address young adults.

Warning Signs

Watch if they..:

  • Become increasingly isolated
  • Stop enjoying activities they once loved
  • No longer attend classes or social outings
  • React negatively or with apathy to most things
  • Have mood swings that seem to come from nowhere
  • Experience sleep disturbance (too much or too little)
  • Develop a preoccupation with death-related themes, including suicide (movies, music, books)
  • Show a lack of interest in school, a sudden drop in grades, skipping class, difficulty concentrating, and aggression toward teachers and student peers
  • Engage in withdrawal, disregard for personal appearance, or substance use (or increase of it)
  • Engage in risk-taking activities, self-harm/self-mutilation (such as cutting)
  • Change their eating habits

What Helps

  • Relationships are the most important asset. Stay close, offer non-judgmental help, and as much as possible (with consent), involve family, friends, teachers, faculty, or staff. Build an empathic, supportive community.
  • Healthy habits like adequate sleep, diet, physical exercise, health care, and therapy. Most colleges have mental health services for students, so take advantage of that.

For Parents

  • Stay involved in their academic lives. If you have kids who are still in school, attend events that are relevant to them, such as dance performances and sports matches. If there are academic problems, talk to teachers and faculty.
  • When in college, which many times means that they are out of state, keep in touch. This is particularly important for freshmen because they are going through many adaptations, so they need to feel that family support is still there.
  • When talking to your kid, avoid “right or wrong” comments. Ask open-ended questions (those that are not answered by a simple yes or no). This helps them open up to you.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Many times, instead of seeking advice, what they need is to be heard. Kids usually make it clear when they want your objective guidance. A good approach is to relate their problems to similar ones that you have had in the past. This is less intrusive than saying things like, “I think you should.” Give them space to figure out what is best for them, discuss the different possibilities, and show them an angle they might not have considered.
  • Remember, sometimes children and adolescents who contemplate suicide won’t tell you because they are worried about how you will react. Your direct, non-judgmental questions can encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. Regardless of their response, if you suspect that a person may be suicidal, search for professional help immediately.

Warning Signs in Younger Kids

Children "talk" through behavior and play, so pay attention to changes in these two areas. Remember that only you know your child, so for some, aggression may show up as a behavioral shift. Others might become anxious, sad, or unusually restless. They might do things like:

  • Give away toys
  • Become more aggressive through play
  • Refuse to play altogether
  • Have recurrent nightmares
  • Develop separation anxiety
  • Have physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
  • Cling more than usual
  • Have difficulty concentrating
  • Demonstrate poor self-esteem/negative self-image

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

References

1. Center for Disease Control, CDC. The number of suicides nearly tripled in ten years for kids between the ages of 10 and 14.

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