Suicide remains the second leading cause of death in adolescents—and males have historically taken their life at higher rates than females. But researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio have found “a greater percentage increase in suicide rates” for female youth in a 40-year period.
The study, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at suicide rates of those between 10 and 19 years old from 1975 to 2016. During those years, there were more than 85,000 youth suicide deaths in the United States—males accounted for about 80 percent and females 20 percent. Starting in 2007, suicide rates increased for both boys and girls following a “downward trend” in the early 90s. But the suicide rate for girls in particular is raising new concerns.
“Overall, we found a disproportionate increase in female youth suicide rates compared to males, resulting in a narrowing of the gap between male and female suicide rates,” Donna Ruch, Ph.D., a researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the lead author, said in a statement. Suicide rates for girls ages 10 to 14 increased by 12.7 percent a year, and 7.9 percent a year for those aged 15 to 19. Rates for boys increased by 7.1 percent and 3.5 percent respectively.
Is social media to blame?
The study did not analyze reasons why there’s been an increase for girls, but experts say social media may be playing a role, although it isn't the only factor.
Social media makes it easy for children to feel isolated—and social isolation has strongly been linked to suicide. “Adolescence is a time when you are starting to develop socially and learning how to interact,” says Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., executive director of Innovation360, an outpatient counseling service in Dallas, Texas, helping people struggling with mental health, substance abuse, and relationship issues. "Social media is a poor substitute for real relationships."
A Common Sense Media census report in 2016 found that a majority of children have their own social media accounts, and the average age of creating an account is around 12. Another study shows teens who spend more time on social media have a higher risk of depression, which can increase suicide risk. And girls reported using social media more frequently than boys (some for three or more hours per day) and were more vulnerable to self-image issues and bullying. "The more time we spend on social media, the less time we are spending practicing real relationships and connectedness,” adds Dr. Gilliland.
Social media also makes comparisons to other people much easier, says Judy Ho, Ph.D., a forensic and neuropsychologist who works with patients of all ages, and author of Stop Self-Sabotage. "Identity formation is happening during the teen years...and teens are more sensitive than adults to the social comparisons," she says. "Social media makes them feel like they aren’t good enough. That not only cuts into their identity development, it also makes them feel horrible about themselves—and that oftentimes can be a risk factor for depression."
What are the signs a child or teen is contemplating suicide?
Change in routine. This is one of the biggest indications something is wrong. That can be losing interest in a hobby your child used to love, preferring to stay home, or not wanting to hang out with friends. A change in their sleep pattern is another sign. For example, they are suddenly staying up till 4 a.m. when they usually go to sleep by midnight or they are waking up in the middle night.
Changes in behavior. If they are “down, sad, crying, or seem overly sensitive, it could be a sign depression is sinking in,” says Dr. Ho. Adolescents may also have sudden angry, violent outbursts, which aren't typical, says Dr. Gilliland.
Talking about death. "They might say things like, 'I might not be around when you do this,' 'I might not be around for vacation next year,' or 'When I’m not around, this is how you will feel,'" says Dr. Ho. They may also draw about death or start giving away some of their prized possessions.
Researching about suicide and death is common too, which is why parents should monitor all devices, including laptop use, advises Dr. Ho. “Parental monitoring is one of the main factors that prevent any kind of negative trajectory, whether it’s severe mental illness problems, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, or teenage pregnancy."
How can parents intervene?
Keep a channel of communication open. If you notice a change in your child or see them struggling, it’s imperative you step in and have a conversation with them as soon as possible.
Ask them if they feel hopeless or ever thought about hurting themselves, says Dr. Gilliland. "A lot of parents are afraid that if they say it, it’s going to put a thought in their head. It’s not. You may save their life," he adds.
In cases where your child seems reluctant to open up to you (totally normal), find another trustworthy person. “Look for people your child feels comfortable with even if it’s a teacher, a mentor, a coach, your religious institution. Ask them to have a conversation with your child,” says Dr. Gilliland.
It's OK to also turn to their friends. Ask them if they've noticed anything different about your child—it may feel out of character, but it could be a great way to get information about their mental health.
Normalize feelings. As hard as it may be to hear your child talk negatively, don't act horrified or reprimand them for their thoughts. "Sometimes parents might say things like, 'How can you think that? Your life is so good. Why would you take away your life?'" says Dr. Ho. "I think they mean well, but that just shames the child even more."
Instead, show compassion and normalize what they are feeling. “You want to model that it’s normal at times to feel this way but explain that when we start feeling like we are a burden to other people and isolated and don’t want to wake up, that’s not normal. It means we may have something that we need to go get treated," says Dr. Gilliland.
Seek professional help. Opting for a good counselor or therapist who has experience working with adolescents is a great option. Offer to go in with your child or ask if they prefer to go alone. And continue checking in on them to see how therapy is progressing and if it's helping them.
It's also a good idea to give your child the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). It’s 24/7, free, and confidential. "It’s always good to be prepared and it’s just another way for your child to have an emergency toolkit," says Dr. Ho. "Tell them, 'If you feel like this and no one is around and you don’t know what to do, then call this number.'"