Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D. and Laurie Berdahl, M.D.

Warning Signs for Parents

Why Are More Young Girls Killing Themselves?

A look at possible factors behind this disturbing suicide trend

Posted May 23, 2016

Late last year, we were saddened by the deaths of two children in a nearby town, Fort Collins, Colorado. At the tender age of eleven, Ariana Cordova and an unnamed boy both took their own lives during the week before Thanksgiving.   

Markzfilter, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.com
Source: Markzfilter, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.com

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that our nation’s overall suicide rate declined steadily from its peak in the year 1986 until 1999, but has climbed ever since then, including in youth. Although more boys than girls commit suicide, and young girls constitute a small portion of all victims, 10 to 14 year old girls had the biggest rise in suicide rates, tripling over 15 years, with 150 deaths in 2014. For every one of these completed suicides, many other young girls attempted it.

As a gynecologist and mother, and a psychologist and father, we're disturbed by this data and feel compelled to figure out what’s behind this shocking suicide trend in young girls. Girls this age are just beginning their lives, and should be having fun and dreaming about their futures with excitement.

But what could go so wrong, be so horrific, that increasing numbers of young girls decide to end their lives and actually do it?

One theory is the trend toward earlier female puberty. The hormonal changes of puberty can cause depression, the most common risk factor for suicide, and these changes are occurring earlier. But because puberty hasn’t been linked to suicide in the past, we need to look beyond hormones for answers. However, it is possible that earlier physical changes aren’t being accompanied by earlier compensatory brain development needed to help girls mentally and emotionally handle what is happening to their bodies, especially when it draws attention from others.

Also, today’s girls are growing up in an aggressively sexualized culture, which may be causing the period (no pun intended) of body transformation to be more traumatic. The American Psychological Association’s Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls reported that girls are learning that their value is based only on their sexual appeal or behavior, that they’ll need to meet a narrowly defined standard of physical attractiveness to be sexy, or their body parts are to be used by others for sexual purposes. When teaching female puberty classes, participants are consistently concerned about what their bodies were going to look like—how sexy their bodies would become.

Dedidja, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.com
Source: Dedidja, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.com

Then there’s the fact that kids can be very cruel, aggressive bullies, ridiculing other children’s personalities, sexual orientations, or body features (such as when a girl develops breasts, acne, or height earlier than most), or whatever else makes someone seem different. The rise of youth texting and social media use has certainly contributed to bullies’ ability to harm others—anytime, anywhere, and shared with anyone. Ariana’s parents blamed bullying for driving their daughter to suicide. But most bullied children don’t resort to this, especially when good support systems are in place. Other risk factors could be contributing to this suicidal trend.

Depression and despair can result from children and teens being abused—sexually, physically, or emotionally. These violent traumas are unacceptably common, with sexual abuse alone affecting up to 20% of girls.

Domestic violence is also a frequent cause of trauma in childhood: over a quarter of American teens say they’ve witnessed a parent physically or psychologically harmed by a partner. This can be tremendously damaging to a child’s coping ability and outlook on life.

You know what else we think is tremendously damaging to a youth’s outlook on life? The amount of violence, often against women, seen in multiple forms of entertainment and news media. Many kids now grow up deeply worried about being personally affected by crime and violence including gun violence and terrorism. Conversations with girls and women as well as research on media exposure support our suspicions.

Then there’s this thing called suicide contagion, in which hearing about a famous person or another person of a similar age or situation committing suicide can push a suicidal youth over the edge.

Overall, it seems to us that this troubling suicidal trend is a reflection of the high doses of aggression and violence that young girls are now subjected to in many forms. We’d love to know your thoughts. We need to put our heads together and figure this out, and then take action to prevent the underlying risk factors for the sake of our girls.

Read more in WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids From Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression (Release date August 1, 2016, Chicago Review Press, www.warningsignsforparents.com)

References:

Ashley Michels, “Two 11-year-olds Commit Suicide in Fort Collins; One Family Blames Bullying,” Fox31 Denver, November 23, 2015, http://kdvr.com/2015/11/23/two-11-year-olds-commit-suicide-in-fort-collins-family-of-one-blames-bullying/.

Rae Ellen Bichell, “Suicide Rates Climb in U.S., Especially among Adolescent Girls,” NPR.org, April 22, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/22/474888854/suicide-ra....    

Mary Brophy Marcus, “U.S. Suicide Rates on the Rise,” CBS NEWS.com, April 22, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-suicide-rates-climb-higher/.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data obtained using the WISQARS database on Nonfatal Injury Reports.

American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. Available at https://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf.

Pereda, N., Guilera, G., Forns, M., & Gomez-Benito, J. (2009). The prevalence of child sexual abuse in community and student samples: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 328–338.

Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2013). Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: An update. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7), 614‐621. 

American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media. (2009). Policy statement - Media violence. Pediatrics, 124(5), 1495-1503.

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