New statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have revealed some alarming trends — the suicide rate for teenage girls are now at record-high levels, with the rate of teenage boys killing themselves also up significantly over the same timeframe. But why are more American teens taking their own lives these days, as compared to about four decades ago, and what can be done to curb the problem?
A report from the HuffPost cited the CDC’s latest figures, which show a dramatic increase in suicide rates for girls and boys alike — for girls aged 15 to 19, the suicide rate doubled from 2007 to 2015 to reach record levels over a 40-year time period, and for boys aged 15 to 19, the rate was up 30 percent over that same eight-year span. The CDC’s statistics included data dating back to 1975, all the way up to 2015, which was the most recent year the health agency has records for.
According to the CDC, there were 1,289 suicides among boys in the 15-19 age range, and 305 among girls in the same range in the United States in 1975. Over the next 40 years, this increased to 1,537 suicides among males, and 524 among females, both in the 15-19-years-old age range. For both males and females, the trends showed a sharp increase from 1975 to about 15 years later, before declining from the ’90s to the late 2000s, and increasing once again by 2015.
Separately, the CDC reported in 2016 that the general suicide rate for the entire U.S. population had gone up by 24 percent over a 15-year timeframe. This spurred concern among experts, who were especially alarmed by the suicide rate increase among girls aged 10 to 14. According to the HuffPost, this demographic was described as “one to keep an eye on.”
Commenting on his agency’s new report, Tom Simon, CDC associate director for science in the Violence Protection division, told CNN that the suicide rates for young girls and boys are a big cause for concern, as rates don’t appear to have increased as quickly among older adults. All in all, Simon sees the trends as “pretty robust,” in his words.
Simon cited a number of risk factors or reasons why teenagers are now more prone to commit suicide than they were in previous years or generations — substance abuse, social isolation, exposure to a violent culture, relationship issues, and a lack of support. He also theorized that the effects of the global economic recession of the late 2000s may have put a lot of stress on families, thereby affecting their teenage children.
Meanwhile, Ohio State University professor Carl Tishler, who was not involved in the study, said that he believes higher suicide rates among older girls and boys may have something to do with opiate or heroin overdoses, which may not have been suicides after all, contrary to how they were reported. He also mentioned “internet suicides” — those that came as a result of cyberbullying — as another possible factor behind the increases.
But why is the suicide rate for teenage girls increasing faster than it is for teenage boys, and why is it now at a record level? According to Emory University School of Medicine assistant professor Dorian A. Lamis, girls may be more affected by cyberbullying than boys are, thus making older teenage girls more likely than ever to kill themselves. Lamis, who also was not involved in the CDC study, added that the fact puberty happens earlier among girls could lead to psychosocial and physical changes that could leave them more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other similar risk factors.
Although cyberbullying is still a problem for many internet-savvy teens, the CDC’s Simon noted that social media could serve as a powerful tool, or a gateway to other tools, that could drive teenagers away from the thought of taking their own lives.
“Social media can help increase connections between people, and it’s an opportunity to correct myths about suicide and to allow people to access prevention resources and materials.”
However, the most powerful tool that could help suicide rates among teenage boys and girls go down may be support. That was what Suicide Awareness Voices of Education executive director Dan Reidenberg focused on in an interview with the HuffPost. Reidelberg believes that the CDC’s findings should be a “wake-up call” to people, a sign that children and their guardians should be more open when talking about mental health, and an example of why it’s okay for young people to ask for, and get help for their personal issues.
“We need to make it okay to talk about things that are causing emotional pain and let people know that it is real, but it can get better. We should be concerned, because dying by suicide shouldn’t be an option, and young people often feel like it is their only option.”
Similarly, Simon urged adult authority figures — parents, teachers, coaches, and religious leaders — not to hesitate to talk to young people who may be at risk of committing suicide.
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