Up to this point we’ve done a lot of talking about what it means to parent children effectively and set them up for healthy lives. We’ve looked at some of the traps the world lays for them, the obstacles that can trip them up along the way, and the mental health issues that can send them spinning off in dangerous directions. All of this has been good, solid information, but there’s an important sense in which it’s only preparatory to our real task. Now it’s time to get down to the heart of the matter.
Teen suicide has become a huge problem in our society. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that for each teen who actually dies by suicide as many as twenty-five teens contemplate taking their lives. Apparently, quite a few of our young people are giving a great deal of thought to the possibility of ending their own lives.
Before we can fight back effectively, we need to find out exactly what we’re up against. There’s a story to be told here, and the relevant statistics can help us get a handle on it.
Teen Suicide: What Do the Numbers Tell Us?
What precisely is happening in the world of teen suicide? Here’s a quick rundown of some basic figures:
According to the most recent statistics (2013) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide (22 percent) is now second only to accidents (45 percent) as a leading cause of death among young people ages fifteen to twenty four, ranking tenth among subjects of all ages. The average number of teens who take action to end their lives per year is now 575,000. Of those, 4,600 die by suicide (about twelve per day on average). Of those teens who think about suicide, about half actually put their thoughts into action.
Among students in the ninth to twelfth grades,
- 17 percent thought about suicide in the last twelve months (22.4 percent female, 10.3 percent male);
- 13.6 percent made a specific suicide plan in the last twelve months (16.9 percent female, 10.3 percent male);
- 8 percent actually took action to end their life one or more times in the last twelve months (10.6 percent female, 5.4 percent male);
- 2.7 percent required medical attention after suicidal actions (3.6 percent female, 1.8 percent male);
- Montana, Wyoming, and a few other western states have consistently registered the highest age-adjusted suicide rates. The problem is particularly acute in small towns and rural areas where there is limited access to mental health resources and greater access to firearms.
It’s important to add that girls are more likely to take suicidal actions than boys—three times more likely. On the other hand, boys are more likely to die by suicide on their first attempt. As a result, 81 percent of all teen suicide victims are male.
This is largely a reflection of the different methods employed by boys and girls. Firearms are used in 56.9 percent of male suicides. Girls resort more frequently to drugs or some other form of poisoning (34.8 percent). The numbers may also be due to the fact that females usually find it easier to verbalize suicidal feelings and reach out for help, whereas boys tend to keep their emotions pent up inside.
The statistics on suicide methods suggests some rather obvious ways in which you can prevent the tragedy of suicide from overtaking your son or daughter. You may not be able to protect your teens from every eventuality and negative influence, but there are some very simple things you can do to head this potential monster off at the pass:
If you have firearms in the house, make sure they’re locked away in a safe place—all the time—and don’t let your kids have the keys or the access codes. If your kids are involved in hunting or shooting exercises, make sure your kids engage in these activities only under adult supervision.
Meanwhile, make a clean sweep of your medicine cabinet and get rid of any old pharmaceuticals that are no longer needed. Stash current prescriptions in a safe or a locked cabinet where they won’t be available to anyone except the person who actually needs them. You’ll be glad you did.
As parents, work on your relationship with your kids and do everything possible to strengthen their sense of identification with the family. Encourage participation in church youth groups, school sports, music, orchestra, or dance classes. Invite your children’s friends over to your house on a regular basis. Make your home the cool place for kids to hang out. Communal involvements of this nature are good buffers against depression, moodiness, and suicidal thoughts.
Causes and Risk Factors
Why do so many kids feel tempted to take their own lives? How can you tell if your child is susceptible to this trend and at serious risk of hurting himself? Studies have identified six top reasons for adolescent suicide:
- Depression. Always accompanied by a pervasive sense of suffering, hopelessness, and despair, severe depression often seems to be too much to bear. It is by far the most common reason for teen suicide. About 75 percent of deaths by suicide are the result of depression, anxiety, or a sense of being trapped in difficult circumstances.
- Psychosis. Malicious inner voices often command self-destruction for unintelligible reasons. People with schizophrenia will usually give honest answers about thoughts of suicide when asked directly.
- Impulse. Under the influence of drugs or alcohol, some people become overly emotional and attempt to end their own lives. When sober, these individuals usually feel genuine remorse.
- Cry for help. Some people don’t want to die—they want to send a signal to others that something is seriously wrong. They frequently use methods they believe won’t kill but often cause unintentional and irreversible damage.
- Philosophical reasoning. For some, the decision to kill themselves is a deliberate, reasoned choice, sometimes motivated by a painful terminal illness from which there is little or no hope of recovery.
- Mistake. Deaths in this category are often the result of experimentation with autoerotic asphyxiation—self-induced oxygen deprivation intended to produce sexual stimulation or a similar high.
Since the number-one cause of suicide among young people is depression, it’s particularly distressing that only one in five depressed teens actually gets the help, often due to fear of stigma. This is all the more reason for us as parents to keep an eye out for the symptoms of depression (see page 118).
It’s important to add that depression in and of itself is rarely sufficient to drive a young person to take her life. Almost every suicide has a triggering circumstance: an immediate crisis of some kind that compels kids to translate their feelings into action. These triggering circumstances can include such events as
- divorce of parents,
- violence in the home,
- inability to succeed in school,
- breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend,
- feelings of worthlessness,
- rejection by friends or peers,
- substance abuse,
- death of a loved one,
- the suicide of a friend or acquaintance.
To a certain extent it would be fair to say that all teens, even the most normal and well-adjusted ones, are at risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior to some degree. That’s because adolescence can be a stormy and tumultuous time of life under the best of circumstances. Hormonally driven emotional swings can deepen the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness that many young people experience during this stage of development. And there are other factors that can come into play as well. For example:
- Aggressive or disruptive behavior
- Confusion regarding gender identity or sexual orientation
- Spotty mental health screening
- Poor access to mental health services
- Reluctance to admit having a problem
- Bullying (whether at school or online)
- Disturbing societal issues and trends
Add to all of this the fact that many teens lack self-control and are temperamentally inclined to risky, impulsive behavior, and it’s easy to see the need for parental vigilance.
The Bigger Picture
These facts and figures give us a pretty accurate picture of what we’re facing in terms of teen suicide. The statistics assume an even greater significance when examined in the context of recent history. Viewed from this perspective, the numbers reveal an interesting trend. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the teen suicide rate actually reached its highest point sometime during the 1990s. Then between 1999 and 2007, the suicide rate among ten- to nineteen-year-olds fell 15 percent, to 3.9 percent.1 Since then the rate has picked up again, almost reaching its earlier apex. Experts now tell us that the suicide rate for white children and teens from ages ten to seventeen rose 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. While black children and teens kill themselves less often than white youth, their rate of increase was even higher, at 77 percent.2
Is this good news or bad? The answer seems to be both. On the one hand, the teen suicide rate is no higher than it was twenty years ago, and it’s still a relatively small number. On the other hand, it’s on the rise again after having fallen for more than a decade. And of course, statistics are meaningless if it’s your child who’s the one in one hundred thousand.
While there’s no need for panic, there’s a real need for vigilance and hard work. After all, even one young life lost to suicide is one too many. And there are good reasons to suppose we’ll be losing a lot more than that unless all of us—parents, teachers, pastors, youth workers, and public servants alike—take deliberate, preventative measures.
- Sally C. Curtin et al., “Recent Increases in Injury Mortality Among Children and Adolescents Ages 10-19 Years in the United States: 1999-2016,” National Vital Statistics Reports 67, no. 4 (June 1, 2018), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr /nvsr67/nvsr67_04.pdf (accessed September 12, 2018).
- Jayne O’Donnell and Anne Saker, “Teen Suicide is soaring. Do spotty mental health and addiction treatment share blame?”, USA Today Network, March 19, 2018, https://www.usatoday .com/story/news/politics/2018/03/19/teen-suicide-soaring-do -spotty-mental-health-and-addiction-treatment-share-blame /428148002/ (accessed September 12, 2018).