Every 29 seconds in 2015 someone in this country tried to kill himself.
After a long-term decline, suicide rates are rising in an alarming trend across the United States according to the American Association of Suicidology. Children and young adults are particularly susceptible. After accidents, suicide is the second leading cause of death for our nation’s youth.
Between 2014 and 2015 an average of one person, age 24 or younger, killed himself every 1 hour and 36 minutes. That number is especially staggering given the potential underreporting of suicide.
“Everyone [working in suicide prevention] is extremely worried about the numbers going up,” Maryland based clinical psychologist Caitlin Thompson, who specializes in suicide prevention, told the Center for Family Involvement.
Collecting accurate data on suicide is difficult. Family members often request that suicide not be listed as the cause of death. State and local government are sometimes reluctant to report on suicide because they fear losing funding and public support.
Often, the lines between accidental deaths and death by suicide are difficult to discern. If a drug overdose is the cause of death, it’s hard to know if it was accidental or intentional unless evidence is left behind. It’s also possible many more people attempt suicide than what is reported because individuals may be reluctant to share what really happened.
Suicide is very complicated, Thompson stressed. Periods of change and transition put people at risk, and adolescents and young adults are in constant transition: puberty, high school, college, leaving home, relationships. “Break-ups are a risk across the board,” Thompson said.
Depression is a huge factor, but not everyone who is depressed is suicidal. “There is a confluence of factors,” Thompson said. Mental health issues coupled with a break up or drug use, for example, could lead to dangerous thoughts.
Sara Dickens (not her real name), who lives in the Washington DC area, knows this reality all too well. She got custody of her three granddaughters after her son died of an overdose 10 years ago. She suspects his overdose might have been intentional.
All three girls, now teenagers, have suffered a great deal of trauma because of their upbringing. They all have mental health issues. Dickens told CFI that she has heard her granddaughters and their friends talk about suicide.
In 2013 one granddaughter, who has bipolar disorder, attempted to take her own life. Dickens believes a contributing factor to the suicide attempt was anger over being forbidden to see her boyfriend; that, perhaps compounded with so many other issues, prompted her to overdose. Dickens says she is OK now that she has help. In fact, all three of her granddaughters are currently receiving mental health services and other supports through local government programs because their circumstances put them at risk.
The Complex Contribution of Social Media According to Thompson, the clinical psychologist, social media is a contributing factor and solution at the same time. A tremendous amount of research trying to understand the nuances of social media and its impact on mental health and suicide is currently ongoing, but researchers do know that social media is a double-edged sword. The public personas we create online can contribute to self-doubt and loathing. Cyber-bullying is a huge problem. And the viral reporting of suicide is detrimental to vulnerable youths.
But social media can also be a great support system. A concerned parent who takes away social media privileges as punishment or to protect their child may actually put them at risk. People form connections even online, that can be very valuable in times of emotional need. If someone is thinking about suicide or is depressed, she has a better chance at prevention when those thoughts are shared on social media.
“One of the biggest protective factors [against suicide] is connection and social support. Social media provides that. When someone is thinking about suicide and puts it up on social media, there is a better chance for intervention,” Thompson said.
Media Influence News outlets can also put individuals at risk for suicide. Reports that include an unnecessary amount of detail can actually fuel suicidal thoughts and give those considering suicide ideas. It’s like a contagion effect. More than 50 studies worldwide have found that the type, frequency, and prominence of some news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The National Institutes of Health conducted one of those studies in 2012. It found sensationalist reporting on celebrity suicide is associated with an increase in suicides
The death of comedian and actor Robin Williams is a prime example where intimate details of his death by suicide were blanketed online, on television and in print publications. As the story unfolded, the coverage shifted to his struggles with depression, addiction, and eventually a rare disease he was battling. Along with that incessant coverage was a lasting spike in calls to suicide prevention hotlines, although it’s unclear whether the increase in call volume was due to William’s death or increased awareness of the hotlines.
Help and Hope If you suspect a young person is suffering to the extreme, consider the following:
Start a Dialogue
“There’s a myth that by asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal you’ll put those thoughts in their head,” said Thompson. “Asking them allows them to know you’re not scared to talk about the worst thing they’ve probably ever thought. It validates those feelings and helps them reach out for help.”
Get Help Early
While not all depression leads to suicide, if someone you love is showing signs of depression it’s important to get him or her help before it escalates. Thompson says the key to prevention is to give individuals the proper supports so they don’t get to the point of thinking about suicide.
Firearms are the most common method of suicide and one of the biggest challenges for suicide prevention specialists. Thompson said there is an 80 percent chance you will die if you’re using a gun while suicidal, compared to a 2 or 3 percent chance when using pills.
If you think someone might be at risk, prevention specialists say it’s critical to lower those risks. Unload your guns and remove them from your home. Dispose of medicine that could be used to overdose. Keep tabs on knives and razors.
It is important to be vigilant of changes in your loved one’s behavior. Some suicide prevention specialists are concerned that a disconnect between parents and children could be contributing to the rise in suicide rates simply because caregivers are not picking up on early warning signs.
Significant life events can lead to problems, so it’s important to pay extra attention to your child if you’re having family problems, if he or she has been arrested, or has been expelled from school. Try to remember how difficult some events can be to a teenager even though they may seem trivial to you.
While social media can be a lifeline, dangers such as apps and websites that promote suicide can also be triggers.
We have no way of knowing what is going on inside someone’s brain when they are suicidal. Each person has a unique biochemistry. Drugs and alcohol can often contribute to risky behavior, but it’s hard to know what might trigger suicidal thoughts.
If you have the smallest bit of concern, know that trained professionals available to talk, toll free, 24 hours a day.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).
The Trevor Project
SUICIDE WARNING SIGNS (From National Suicide Prevention Lifeline):
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves such as looking online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alchohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings