The Ongoing Epidemic of Youth Suicide in America
Answering the “Why?” question.
Posted July 13, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States.
- Suicide rates in 2020 were 30 percent higher than in 2000.
- The youth suicide rate was stable from 2000 to 2007, it then increased 56 percent between 2007 and 2017.
Two recent youth suicides in rapid succession claimed the lives of a 19-year-old young man and a 14-year-old teenager in a small Northeast community.
Both deaths, and thousands more across the country, beg the question that serves as the title for the 2021 book by Josie Jacob, Why Did You Choose to Die? A Personal Story of Reconciliation With the Suicide of Loved Ones (Jacob, 2021).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the following (CDC, 2022a).
- Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. It was responsible for nearly 46,000 deaths in 2020.
- In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.2 million attempted suicide.
- Suicide rates in 2020 were 30 percent higher than in 2000.
The CDC explains that “Suicide is death caused by injuring oneself with the intent to die” (CDC, 2022b).
Both “risk” and “protective” factors influence outcomes. On the risk side of the equation reside four overarching categories (CDC, 2021).
- Individual: Previous suicide attempt, mental illness, such as depression, social isolation, criminal problems, financial problems, impulsive or aggressive tendencies, job problems or loss, legal problems, serious illness, and substance use disorder
- Relationship: Adverse childhood experiences, including child abuse and neglect, bullying, family history of suicide, relationship problems such as a breakup, violence, or loss, and sexual violence
- Communities: Barriers to health care, cultural and religious beliefs, such as a belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal problem, and suicide clusters in the community
- Societal: Stigma associated with mental illness or help-seeking, easy access to lethal means among people at risk, firearms and medications, and unsafe media portrayals of suicide
Perhaps most frightening, the suicide rate among persons aged 10 to 24 was stable from 2000 to 2007, and then increased 56 percent between 2007 (6.8 per 100,000) and 2017 (Curtin and Heron, 2019).
In 2021, Dr. Vivek Murthy released a Surgeon General’s Advisory that spotlights the urgent need for a “swift and coordinated response” to the country’s youth mental health emergency. Of this crisis, he said, “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide—and rates have increased over the past decade. The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating. The future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation” (OSG, 2021a).
One suicide prevention pioneer, Dr. Scott Poland, director of the Office of Suicide and Violence Prevention at Nova Southeastern University, shares that, thanks to a donation, he was able to send multiple copies of the Florida S.T.E.P.S. Program to every school district in the state.
S.T.E.P.S. is divided into three primary sections.
The program includes 32 tools for schools to utilize in their important work. Dr. Poland and his wife, Donna, completed three similar projects for the state of Texas and one for the state of Montana. Ninety percent of the information in S.T.E.P.S. will be very useful to every school in America (Poland and Ivey, 2021).
Fortunately, Texas and Montana are not the only states focusing on student mental health and risk reduction. In Michigan, for example, teachers and schools are working overtime on initiatives to help kids feel more connected. Of that approach, writer Eleanore Catolico says, “Teachers have been trained in the subjects they teach, but not in ways of helping students control their emotions or rewrite the stories they tell themselves. But since the mid-1990s, multiple studies have shown the benefits of social-emotional learning, a strategy that trains educators to nurture student wellness by helping them feel connected, engaged, and supported while cultivating skills in self-management, social awareness, and responsible decision-making.
“As the Covid-19 pandemic brought shutdowns and quarantines, making students’ lives less stable and connected, it intensified a long-festering youth mental health crisis and left schools searching for answers. Making matters worse was a longstanding shortage of counselors and social workers” (Catolico, 2022).
It seems clear that one incredibly effective device can prepare youth for the trials and missteps in life: Resilience. Resilience has been defined as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. And it can be taught to and by anyone.
Other iterations of the concept include language such as “bouncing back” and “falling forward.”
In his upcoming book, Heroes Are Human,” Bob Delaney reframes the discussion of resilience in profound ways. He offers three components, or needs, of learning resilience (Delaney et al, 2022).
- Identify and confront the issue.
- Search for meaning and an understanding that it’s not just about you.
- Be flexible, innovative, and adaptive.
For her part, writer Tilden Davis Arnold’s new memoir, Reassembled – Unlocking the Extraordinary Within, speaks to the challenges of growing up in a family environment of loss and love. She states, “When dad passed away, God demolished my pillars of perfection and control, leaving me with nothing, so I could further transform into the version of myself I was created to live, the version I was made for. It is a version that is still assembling and will continue to reassemble, as my understanding of life and self continues to transform with greater introspection” (Davis Arnold, 2022).
Davis Arnold’s story is one of fundamental resilience, shattering, and reassembling over and over again.
A resilient person sidesteps the setbacks, changes course, emotionally heals, and continues to move forward. Improving one’s resiliency, it says, involves getting connected, making each day meaningful, learning from experience, remaining hopeful, taking care of yourself, and, if needed, being proactive by seeking professional help.
What are some of the signs that you, or someone you know, could be at risk for suicide?
They include the following:
- Acts agitated, anxious, or aggressive
- Gives away personal possessions
- Sleeps too much or too little
- Talks about feeling hopeless, worthless, trapped
Sadly, what’s often on loved ones’ minds when a child dies by suicide is “why?” And the answers aren’t easy to find. But what’s most important is that the signs may be.
Catolico, E. (2022). As youth mental health crisis rages, Michigan schools work to bolster students’ sense of connection. June 8, 2022. MindSite News. https://mindsitenews.org/2022/06/08/as-youth-mental-health-crisis-rages… (11 July 2022).
CDC. (2022a). Suicide prevention. February 5, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/index.html (11 July 2022).
CDC. (2022b). Facts about suicide. May 24, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/facts/index.html (11 July 2022).
CDC. (2021). Risk and protective factors. May 13, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/factors/index.html (11 July 2022).
Curtin, S. and M. Heron. (2019). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10-24: United States, 2000-2017. NCHS Data Brief. No. 352. October 2019. National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf (11 July 2022).
Davis Arnold, T. (2022). Reassembled: unlocking the extraordinary within. Be Bold Publishing. May 14, 2022. https://www.tildendavisarnold.com/ (11 July 2022).
Delaney, R, Schreiber, D. and R. Mollica. (2022). Heroes are human: lessons in resilience, courage, and wisdom from the COVID front lines. Westport, CT: City Point Press. https://www.heroesarehuman.com/about (11 July 2022).
Jacob, J. (2021). Why did you choose to die? A personal story of reconciliation with the suicide of loved ones. January 16, 2021. Independently published.
Mayo Clinic. (2022). Resilience: build skills to endure hardship. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/resilience-training/in-dept… (11 July 2022).
Merriam-Webster. (2022). Resilience. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience?utm_campaign=sd&u… (11 July 2022).
OSG. (2021a). U.S. Surgeon General Issues Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/07/us-surgeon-general-issues-adv… (11 July 2022).
OSG. (2021b). Protecting youth mental health: the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-he… (11 July 2022).
Poland, S. and C. Ivey. (2021). Florida School Toolkit for K–12 Educators to Prevent Suicide (S.T.E.P.S.). Nova Southeastern University College of Psychology. https://www.nova.edu/publications/florida-toolkit/2021/florida-school-t… (11 July 2022).