Teen and Adolescent Suicide Rate Is on the Rise. What Can Be Done?
September 8, 2017
Across the United States, suicides have surged to the highest levels in decades. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicides by teens and younger children have risen sharply, with the rate for girls at its highest level in 40 years. In Michigan, suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 15-34 and the third leading cause for ages 10-14.
Why are more children committing suicide? “There is seldom a single cause for suicide,” says Christy Warren, L.B.S.W., a clinician with the Mobile Crisis Response (MCR) program at Family & Children Services. “Rather, it’s the result of many converging factors, usually including an underlying mental health condition and access to lethal means.”
MCR is a comprehensive, community-based service offering immediate response, 24/7/365, for youth in Kalamazoo County who are facing a substance use and/or mental health crisis that may include thoughts and expressions of suicide. Access to Mobile Crisis Response is through Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services access line at 269-373-6000 or 888-373-6200.
Christy has been with the program since its inception in 2000. She and the other MCR clinicians are trained specifically to work with youths and their families, to provide clinical assessment and develop crisis safety plans to address their issues. They also coordinate placements for youth, including to Glen’s House, the short-term crisis residential and respite services program on the Family & Children Services’ Kalamazoo service site for children ages five to 17 who are experiencing an acute mental health crisis.
Causes of Teen and Adolescent Suicide
According to Christy, the start of the school year correlates with an increased risk of suicide ideation among teens and adolescents. “The volume of calls to the crisis hotline always decreases during the summer months and over the yearend holiday school vacation. Kids have far less drama in their lives during the summer. They are doing more with family, have summer activities, are more physically active, and having fun.”
When the new school year approaches and school-related stress and social pressures increase, some kids will start talking about hurting themselves, she says. “Calls from worried parents steadily increase as school approaches and reach a high level about two-weeks after school starts.”
A large increase in social media use is also fueling suicide ideation amongst teenagers, especially girls. “One student might post something about another student on social media that is a blow to her ego and self-esteem. We all know that negative comments can take on a life of their own on social media. It may not take long for the offended student to start thinking about hurting herself or taking her own life. But don’t just tell your child to ‘Get off Facebook,’ thinking the problem will go away. That minimizes their feelings and may cause them to avoid talking to you about them. Help children be more engaged, less solitary, and unplugged from social media.”
Popular media can also play a role, she says. The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” adapted from the book of the same title, has garnered a lot of attention this past year. Supporters argue that the series – about a high school girl who commits suicide – shines light on the issue and leads to open discussions about it. Critics say the series glamorizes suicide and increases the likelihood that young people will attempt it. [Read our June 2017 article about “13 Reasons Why”]
Aligned with this is research demonstrating that mass media reporting on the suicide of a celebrity (real or fictional) – and the method of suicide – are associated with more than a fourfold increase in copycat suicide attempts.
Research also shows that children who experience the death of a parent had twice the chance of committing suicide. And that increased risk lasts at least 25 years. Children who lose siblings to death are also at increased risk. Other research suggests that suicide attempts before age 12 strongly correlate with childhood mistreatment, especially sexual abuse. Suicide attempts after age 12 are increasing and are more closely associated with a depressive disorder.
Additionally, specific groups of children are at increased risk of suicide, including American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian American, and LGBTQ youth. This risk increases if these kids are not supported by family members, friends, and schools.
Young people with access to a gun are also at higher risk. Not only do guns account for about 50 percent of all suicides, attempts with guns succeed about 85 percent of the time compared to less than two percent success for overdose or poisoning attempts. Studies also show that about 75 percent of people who were unsuccessful in taking their own lives reported that they decided to make the attempt less than one hour in advance; about one-quarter decided in less than five minutes. Houses without guns or with guns securely locked away can lead to fewer suicides.
Preventing Suicide in Our Kids
Regardless the causes, preventing suicide requires greater public awareness of mental health issues, understanding common risks and warning signs, and implementing effective interventions and treatments. Adults, says Christy, need also to be more attentive to the children in their care.
“I tell parents and other caregivers to be proactive and reactive. Talk to your kids. Often. Ask direct questions. Be persistent. But don’t be judgmental. Watch for expressions of low self-esteem, feelings of depression, talk of hurting themselves. Comments such as ‘I just can’t take it anymore’ or ‘Everyone would be better off without me’ should be red flags.”
Kids who no longer enjoy activities they once liked, have lost weight, seem withdrawn, and exhibit sudden behavioral changes also bear watching, as do ones who’ve suffered the loss of a loved one, parents’ divorce, or personal violence. And find out if your child is being bullied, or is bullying others. Although bullying is seldom the sole cause of a suicide attempt, it can make an unsupportive situation worse for a child with a history of physical, emotional, or sexual trauma.
“Be especially concerned about kids who were troubled, but suddenly no longer are,” Christy says. “Kids who have made up their minds to kill themselves often become calm, at peace with their decision. These are the ones I worry about more.”
If there is any silver lining in the topic of teen and adolescent suicide, Christy says, it’s this: Like many public health problems, suicide is preventable, and there are many resources available to children, adults and families.
If you are in a crisis in Kalamazoo County, call 269-373-6000 or toll free 1-888-373-6200. You will be connected to trained Clinicians who will speak with you over the phone, come to your home, meet you at the hospital, or elsewhere. There is no cost to Kalamazoo County residents for this service. If you are deaf or hard-of-hearing please contact emergency services through the Michigan Relay Center by calling 711.
Every county in Michigan has emergency services through the local Community Mental Health. If you are in crisis in Calhoun County, call 269-966-1460 and ask for the Crisis Team during regular business hours or 1-800-632-5449 after hours.
Children and adults can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “TALK” to 741-741, any time, any day. Texting with a clinician is on the rise nationwide. Teens often feel safer and more comfortable texting, rather than talking, with adults.
If your child is not in crisis mode, but he or she is struggling with depression, anxiety, or something you simply can’t explain, then contact The Counseling Center at Family & Children Services to make an appointment with one of our experienced compassionate counselors. We have a Spanish speaking counselor on staff and counselors embedded in several Kalamazoo Public School buildings.
“I tell teens who are talking about suicide that things will get better, that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Christy says. “I try to help them understand the ‘temporary’ part of that statement, to focus on what is important to them right now, what is going well in their life, their accomplishments, their reasons to live. I also try to help them focus on their support system. Everyone has a parent, family member, teacher, school counselor, coach, pastor, or other trusted adult they can reach out to.
“Above all, I tell them ‘Don’t give up.’ Hope, help, and healing is possible.”