Last October, a report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) revealed a heartbreaking statistic. From 2007 to 2017, the rate of suicides among young people aged 10-24 rose by more than 50%. Even worse, the spread of suicides seems to be accelerating, as the most recent years have had the biggest increases. This was just one in a number of stunning revelations about the untimely deaths of our nation’s teens and young adults.
During that same period, the rate of adolescents dying also started to go up for the first time in decades. This was largely due to the rise in suicides, which have become even more common than murder in these age groups. In 2017, over 6,700 people aged 10 to 24 died from suicide. In the same year, over 7% of all high school students attempted suicide. Young women are almost twice as likely to try to end their lives as young men. However, because males choose more reliably lethal methods, they are three times more likely to die from suicide than females. The biggest growth in suicides actually happened in the youngest part of this group, those aged 10-14. Of these young teens and tweens, three times as many killed themselves in 2017 as did in 2007. In fact, more people in this age range are killing themselves than are killed by others. In the whole U.S., accidents are still the most common way young people die, but in the worst areas, suicide overtakes even that.
Suicide does not occur evenly across the country. The highest rates of suicide are concentrated in the states around the Rocky Mountains, an area known as the “Suicide Belt.” People end their lives in these states three to four times more frequently than in the states with the least suicides. Nowhere is suicide in young people more prominent than in the Mountain West. People who study mental health have known about this phenomenon for decades, but they have struggled to pin down the reason why it exists.
Some suggest that weaker social connections contribute, as many of these western states have large populations that move frequently. When many people come and go, community ties are weak, and suicide rises. Another possible culprit is altitude, and many studies have found that suicide rates jump dramatically above an elevation of 2,000 feet. Scientists believe that lower oxygen higher up can reduce the creation of serotonin, a brain chemical implicated in depression.
Surveys about depression closely match up with this pattern. In states like Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, at least a third of high school students suffered through a week or two of depression symptoms in any single year. This trend appears in other high suicide states outside this region, such as Alaska and Arkansas. Additionally, up to one in five high school students in these states seriously considered suicide each year.
The story of Herriman, Utah, is one of the most painful examples of the growing incidence of suicide in young people. Out of the 3,000 students in this town’s high school, seven took their own lives in less than a year between 2017 and 2018. Now, Utah is one of the growing number of places where more teens die from suicide than from anything else, including accidents and murder.
Clusters of suicides like this, where several people from the same area take their own lives in quick succession, are almost entirely unique to young people. In these cases, suicide infects a community like any other illness. When one person attempts suicide or dies by it, others who are depressed, isolated, or stressed are more likely to follow. As more people end their lives, the trend spreads until almost everyone has lost someone they know.
What happened in Herriman, Utah, is not unique. At least five clusters occur every year in our country, and more may go unreported. In fact, the communities where suicide hits hardest are actually some of the least documented. Although the largest number of teen suicides are in white youths, the data among Native Americans are worse than any other group in America relative to their small population. Native American teens are two and a half times more likely to take their own lives than white teens. Yet, outside of the reservations, most are unaware of these high numbers.
What is causing the increase?
These hot spots – the Mountain West, rural areas, and Native communities – highlight the rise in suicide throughout the United States. Researchers are uncertain about the reasons for this rise but have offered several theories. Many point to increased use of technology, especially social media, as a source of mental anguish in the nation’s youth. However, increased mobile technology and social media use is occurring around the globe, and the rise in suicides is specific to the U.S.
Financial hardships are another potential contributor, as the rise in suicides began just after the Great Recession of 2008. The recession made it more difficult for people coming out of college to get jobs, and unemployment rates were elevated for years after the recession. In this same vein, young people in this nation control a much lower share of the country’s wealth than older generations have in the past at the same age. Some studies have even suggested that raising the minimum wage by a dollar or two may reduce rates of suicide.
Depression in young people
Closely linked to this rise in suicide is a parallel increase in rates of depression. Young people ages 12 to 25 in America have the highest rates of depression and that number has been going up for over a decade. However, the number of people in treatment is lagging behind, and more cases of depression are going untreated. Addressing this will take a national effort on many fronts, and the task can seem daunting and unattainable, especially to people closely affected by suicide. However, there are several steps that everyone can take to prevent suicide in their communities.
Steeped in stigma
Suicide has always carried a powerful stigma, and, though that is slowly evolving, many still find it very difficult to talk about. People might hesitate to ask a friend or family member if they are considering suicide. Those who are suicidal can often feel apprehensive about asking for help. When someone does end their life, friends and family often grieve in silence, alone, rather than share and connect with others. There is a lot of fear about opening up to others; fear of being judged, appearing weak, or being thought of differently. This is the effect of stigma. However, failing to talk about suicide only makes the situation worse, in part by perpetuating the stigma.
Simply talking about suicide isn’t the whole story. How we talk about suicide to one another, and in the media, affects behavior. When news stories give gory details about suicides it can lead people who are already contemplating suicide more likely to act. Detailed publicity around Robin Williams’ death led to a significant increase in suicides by the same method used by the actor/comedian in the months following.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has put together guidelines for media outlets reporting on suicide. Reports should avoid calling suicide “successful” or “unsuccessful.” Using words and phrases such as, “committed suicide,” can invoke the idea that suicide is some kind of criminal act (think “committed murder”). They recommend instead that the words “died by suicide” are used. The best suicide reporting will spare the details about how the person ended their life, where it happened, or what may have been left in a note. It won’t use photos or videos that reveal this information.
What to do
Asking someone if they are feeling suicidal is a big hurdle for many concerned friends and family. It isn’t easy at all. It’s uncomfortable, but if you think you have reason to be concerned, ask. If they are not actually suicidal, they will still be grateful for your interest. Plan out how you are going to ask. Choose a time and place where you will not be interrupted or feel rushed. Silence your phones and put them away, shut off the TV, and turn down the music. Make sure the space is familiar, quiet, and comfortable.
Suicide is a heavy subject, and talking about it can feel overwhelming. Planning what you are going to say will help you stay calm during the conversation. A lot of people are uncomfortable even saying the word, “suicide.” By broaching the subject and actually using the word, “suicide,” you are breaking a major barrier in the conversation and communicating to the other person that it is okay to talk about it. When raising the topic, don’t ask leading questions. For instance, if you start by saying, “You’re not thinking of…” or, “You would never …,” that begs the person to say no, even if that is not the truth. Instead, ask directly, “Are you considering suicide?” or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
Look for the signs
If you are concerned that someone is considering suicide, they will likely have shown many warning signs. People may mention death directly or in vague terms, such as “going away” or “leaving.” Early on, some say things like, “I wish I weren’t alive” or “I wish I didn’t exist.” They might write letters or notes suggesting this as well, containing heartbreaking messages for those they intend to leave behind.
People contemplating suicide will often show changes in behavior. They show signs of depression. Many no longer seem to care about the future and stop looking forward to things. They may cease to enjoy doing things they usually love. They may isolate themselves, and their eating and sleeping patterns can change. Heavy drug and alcohol use is another strong warning sign. People who experienced a major life crisis (such as losing a job or the death of a loved one) or who have a history of mental illness are also at higher risk.
You do not need to be a professional to help stem the rising tide of suicide in America. Everyone can use this basic information to have a positive impact in their community. When people begin to talk openly about suicide and recognize its warning signs, they help fight stigma, raise awareness, break down barriers, and just might save lives.