Adolescent suicide rates on the rise

By Catherine Robertson Souter
October 1st, 2017

Suicide rates among adolescents have shown a steady increase over the past decade, according to a report put out by the Centers for Disease Control. The rates among girls ages 15-19 rose more substantially than those of boys, more than doubling between 2007 and 2015. Rates for teen boys increased during the same period by 30 percent.

The CDC released an updated breakdown of suicide rates in early August showing the trend for suicide among all teens over the past 40 years. The male rate tends to be far higher than for females. In 1975, for instance, the CDC reported that adolescent males committed suicide at a rate of 12 per 100,000 people in the United States. For the same age group of females, the rate was at 2.9 per 100,000.

One reason the death rate is higher for boys may also be the same reason that it is rising more rapidly currently for girls, explained Larry Berkowitz, Ed. D., co-founder of Riverside Trauma Center in Needham, Mass., as well as a member of the executive committee of the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention.

“We have always assumed that the higher rates of suicide death among males are due to the fact that the methods males choose tend to be more lethal, like guns or hanging,” he said.

But females, he pointed out, attempt suicide far more often than males.

“Women attempt suicide three to four times more often than males. It is a much higher attempt rate,” he said. “When women attempt suicide they more often use pills and we are finding that there is greater access to far more lethal medicines now.”

Over the years, the rates of teen suicide for both boys and girls rose through 1990 and then dropped from 1990 to 2007 but then started to climb again. In 2015, the rate for males was at 14.2 per 100,000. This was lower than the peak rates the CDC recorded during the 1980s and 1990s. For females, however, the rate in 2015 rose to 5.1, the highest rate on record from the 40-year period. It had doubled from a rate of 2.4 in 2007.

The data does not give any insight into why the rates have fluctuated during this 40-year time period. Using anecdotal evidence, experts point to access to social media or an increased exposure to violence, bullying, and perhaps a lack of connection to the community.

“Current research indicates that several factors are probably involved,” said Paula Clearwater, MA, LPC, a coordinator in the Child and Family division of Genesis Behavioral Health in Laconia, N.H.. “The exposure that youth have to violence, the pressure adolescents feel via social media and the relative lack of context that young people have with regard to their problems and perceptions. We hear many clients talk of feeling ‘different’ and thinking that their own lives are somehow qualitatively not up to par with the images they are exposed to in the media. Some teens also seem to be suffering from a sense of alienation and a lack of connection to the community.”

According to Berkowitz, the real issue is the fact that it is unclear why the rates are increasing. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 15-24 years old.

“Most areas trend down but suicide trends up,” he explained. “What this shows is that we really do not have a good handle on this and that a lot more work needs to be done. There are a lot of pathways to suicide and we need to think outside the box and understand those pathways.”

Research has shown that many teens who commit suicide are actually in treatment at the time, Berkowitz added, which only proves his point that current treatment is not meeting the need.

“Clinicians don’t get enough training about dealing with suicidal ideation in graduate programs,” he said. “I think psychologists get the most at about 50 percent of grad programs but programs for social workers are only at around 25 percent.”

Stigma surrounding mental health issues may also be impacting rates with teens afraid to ask for help and adults not wanting to put anyone in the spotlight.

“But given this evidence,” said Berkowitz, “we know that we need to talk to young people about it and we need to train people on the front lines, in schools and other gateways, about how to talk to them and make sure that people know where to turn for help.”

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