It should come as no surprise that suicide rates among Americans have increased steadily since the Great Recession of 2007.
While the economy has begun a slow recovery in recent years, and extreme joblessness has eased considerably, many college-age youth remain severely burdened by a mountain of debt in a job market that remains forbidding.
Unable to pay their bills, a growing number are returning to live with their parents.
It’s a convenient safety net — but it’s also psychologically debilitating. And it’s a painful reminder that they are the first generation in decades that expects to be worse off than previous ones.
Their younger siblings, watching from the sidelines, see even less to cheer about.
For some, the pressure — often combined with the effects of substance abuse, family trauma and cyber-bullying by peers — simply becomes too much.
Devoid of emotional support and adult reassurance, they become desperate to end their pain.
The risk of suicide is increasing for all youth, but for the first time in decades, it is girls, not boys that are committing suicide more often. And those at greatest risk are getting younger and younger – 10-14 in most cases. Experts have hypotheses but remain baffled overall.
Past studies have shown that young girls contemplate suicide and attempt it more often than boys. But until recently they were far more likely to survive. One reason was their chosen means – for boys, it was often firearms, for girls, it was slower acting poison or pills.
In recent years, that gender gap has vanished.
Consider the data. Starting in 2007, suicide rates for girls ages 10 to 14 began increasing annually by about 13%, compared to about 7% for boys, according to a 2017 study published in JAMA Network Open. For teens ages 15 to 19, rates among girls and boys increased by about 8% and 3.5%, respectively, the JAMA study reports.
While the overall youth suicide rate is at its highest since 2000, the teenage girl suicide rate is its highest in four decades. Female suicides are increasingly relying on hanging and suffocation, which is reducing their chances of survival.
These girls aren’t just crying for help – they actually want to die.
It’s hard to tease out the different factors at play.
Depression and anxiety rates among young girls are rising. So is substance abuse. However, most of those that suffer from these conditions don’t attempt to commit suicide, though they may contemplate it at higher rates than others, studies show.
Another triggering factor could be cyber-bullying. Girls spend far more time on social media sites than boys and are also far more likely to be victims of cyber-bullying. A study published in 2018 found that young victims of cyber-bullying were twice as likely to attempt suicide. They were also more than 10 times more likely to think about it.
In recent years, a number of high-profile suicides by young female victims of cyber-bullying have drawn attention to the problem. Some school districts are reporting suicide “clusters” after witnessing a spate of teen suicides linked to cyber-bullying.
For example, in Perry Township, Ohio in 2018, sixteens, mostly middle-schoolers, committed suicide in the space of six months. Three of those suicides occurred over a span of just eleven days in January.
None of the victims were related. Cyber-bullying was considered a triggering factor in nearly all of these cases.
Experts say new suicide prevention measures are needed because the current ones haven’t worked.
Stronger involvement by parents in the lives of their children? Sure, as long as their parents aren’t part of the problem, too. Greater attention to treating youth depression? That might work for depression but youth mental illness per se is not leading to suicide.
In fact, the rate of suicide among the mentally ill may not be substantially higher than among the population at large.
Some experts are calling for simpler measures: Limit youth’s access to tools of self-destruction – including firearms, poison, pills, and even knives and rope – and place more effective constraints on rampant social media use.
The rising youth suicide rate, especially among girls has caught prevention experts by surprise. The rate had declined after 1993 until the recent spike. Most suicide prevention resources are still aimed at college students.
Recognizing past failures, a growing number of cities have begun new pilot suicide prevention projects with funding from federal health agencies. In addition, coinciding with National Suicide Prevention Week in early September, a bipartisan bill is making its way through Congress to designate “9-8-8” as the universal suicide hotline number.
These are important new steps. But ultimately, rising suicide rates must be addressed at the broadest national level: A stronger economy with more jobs, better families with more solid values, a commitment to inter-personal civility, and a cultural ethos that teaches youth and young adults to aspire, not despair.
Note: National Suicide Prevention Week Begins on September 8th. For more information visit: