Six months ago, we could not have imagined that our daily vocabulary would be filled with the p-word. And while perhaps we are getting tired of hearing the word pandemic, I can’t help but ask why we haven’t used it to bring urgency to confronting teen suicide. The race to find a cure to the COVID-19 pandemic certainly is front and center, but that same sense of urgency does not seem to be evident for the unsettling rise in teen suicide.
In the United States, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death—with more than 2,000 14- to 18-year-olds dying every year by suicide, and accounting for about one of every three injury-related deaths. That’s the equivalent of losing a large high school’s worth of teenagers to suicide, year after year. These numbers demand our attention.
New CDC data reveal that almost one in five teens across the nation have seriously considered attempting suicide. Picture a typical high school classroom of 25 students. About five of those students could be thinking about suicide.
Data come from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which has monitored trends in youth health behaviors since 1990. According to the new report, the numbers of students who have considered attempting suicide are even higher for students identifying as female, Black, or non-heterosexual. In addition, about one in six students have made a suicide plan and slightly more than one in 10 have attempted suicide.
These numbers are scary—and become even more alarming when we look at the data over time; trends suggest that we are facing a teen suicide pandemic. Over the past 20 years, suicide rates have skyrocketed by over 60 percent, with almost every suicide indicator and student population showing increasing trends.
Similar findings can be found as our teens continue to young adulthood. The Healthy Minds Study tracks student mental health in participating colleges and universities across the United States. Results from the most recent winter/spring survey administration of over 55,000 students indicate that slightly more than one in 10 (14 percent) experienced suicidal ideation over the past year. More than half say they somewhat to strongly needed help for emotional or mental problems, yet 9 percent said they would not talk to anyone if they were experiencing serious emotional distress. In a lecture hall of 50 college students, this means that about seven of them may have considered suicide this past year, and five of them would not talk to anyone about their distress.
In his New York Times piece, “Why Are Young Americans Killing Themselves?“, Dr. Richard Friedman questions how the high rates of teen depression and suicide are even possible given that proven solutions are readily available. We aren’t entirely clear on why this is the case, but all of us must take part in a comprehensive approach to prevent, recognize, and respond to this crisis:
- Prevent. Create a physically and emotionally safe environment for your teens so that thoughts and behaviors about suicide are less likely to happen in the first place. When teens and those around them have the necessary skills to regulate their emotions, and have opportunities to practice these skills and connect with others through positive relationships, we create a safer environment. Through suicide prevention efforts, we can reduce risk and promote resilience and coping.
- Recognize. Be aware of the warning signs of youth suicide. Learning the signs and taking part in mental health awareness campaigns is important, as is ensuring that teens have open channels for talking about their emotions. Actions such as these will help us recognize when something is off, while reducing any stigma around seeking help for mental health issues. Every young person needs someone to confide in about their thoughts and feelings.
- Respond. Learn to be comfortable supporting those who appear emotionally distressed. #BeThe1To offers five action steps for communicating with someone who may be considering suicide: (1) ask in a non-judgmental and supportive way; (2) be there so they feel connected; (3) keep them safe; (4) help them connect to supports; and (5) follow up to see how they are doing. Respond is also about putting additional strategies in place, such as increased regular mental health check-ins, during times of increased stress and reduced coping.
Keep in mind that the data reviewed here were collected prior to the outbreaks of COVID-19, the subsequent economic downturn, and the nationwide protests against police brutality. We are only beginning to get a glimpse of the challenges facing our mental health and emotional well-being; a quick web search shows numerous media reports of record numbers of suicide and overdose since early spring. Forecasts of reactions and responses to disaster suggest we are heading into a period in which we will see spikes in suicidality that could even be underestimated given the magnitude and duration of our situation. We need to sound the alarms.
Every September brings National Suicide Prevention Month. What if each of us uses this year to take action in confronting the data on suicide? Unlike COVID-19, we already know the solution to prevent, recognize, and respond to teen suicide.
If you or someone you know is showing warning sides of suicide risk, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. You can also reach out to Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
To find therapists near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.