A new study shows that suicide rates for teens and young adults are at their highest levels in two decades. The researchers sounded the alarm for 15-year-old to 19-year-old teens, who experienced an annual percentage change in suicide of 10 percent between 2014 and 2017.
Oren Miron, a researcher on mental health at Harvard Medical School and one of the researchers behind the troubling findings, call the surge in teen suicides “unprecedented” in the sense that combing through historical data won’t reveal a similar uptick in suicides among teens and young adults. These are truly record teen suicide rates.
Young Adults Also Impacted
Perhaps what’s most disquieting about these recent findings is that young adults are also being negatively impacted and experiencing markedly higher rates of suicide than previous generations. Young adults aged 20 through 24 are showing their highest rates of suicide since 2000, which was a particularly bad year for suicides among young adults. The rates of suicide for teens and young adults has increased for both males and females, but males seem to be more impacted by this disturbing trend.
Researchers have long noted that males are more likely to succeed at suicide, though females are more likely to attempt it. The reason probably resides in the fact that males choose more lethal means of suicide (e.g., gunshot) than women (e.g., pills). Recent research seems to partly support this finding by showing that suicides among adolescent males rose by 14 percent between 2015 and 2017 whereas suicide rates for adolescent females rose by only 8 percent between 2000 and 2017.
Social Media Could Be Partly Responsible
What’s causing these record teen suicide rates? The Harvard researchers who lead the study conjectured that social media could be behind the trend. Social media creates an easy means of comparing oneself against one’s peers.
What’s more, social media provides fertile ground for online bullying. The trouble with online bullying is that it can be faceless, which makes it potentially more vicious as teens feel they can hide behind a veil of anonymity. Teens may make disparaging comments to other teens that they wouldn’t dream about making in a face-to-face environment.
Two other factors make the social media hypothesis an attractive one – the uptick in suicide rates coincides with teens making heavier use of social media and, secondly, social media use has been connected to anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression are considered risk factors for each other such that experiencing anxiety may predispose teens towards depression. The fact that one mental health condition is associated with the other has been linked to the HPA axis by neuroscientists.
The HPA axis stands for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and psychologists and neuroscientists believe these areas are associated with anxiety and depression such that poorer function, which can be brought about by environmental factors like stress about fitting in at school, might predispose teens and young adults to depression.
The most fascinating link yet between social media use and depression is one that shows that social media use is linearly related to depression. The more social media use, in other words, the higher likelihood teens and young adults will be depressed. In turn, depression could lead to suicide ideation, which could lead to actually making the decision to end one’s own life.
Teens and young adults, in particular, who used social media websites like Instagram and Facebook have been shown to have substantially higher rates of reported depression. The studies vary in the actual percentage increase in reported depression, but they vary by percentage increases of between 15 percent and 65 percent.
Further Studies are Required
Though social media does explain quite a bit about the recent uptick in suicide rates among teens and young adults, researchers are eager to pursue other possible causes. The following have been forwarded by researchers as possibly also to blame:
- Greater access to drugs, including alcohol
- Family instability
- Increased social pressure
- Poorer detection of warning signs
- Greater access to guns
So, what can be done while this research is being sorted out? Look for the warning signs of teen suicide: social withdrawal, talk about suicide, a sense of hopelessness, and a change in eating and/or sleeping patterns.