Suicide is a preventable tragedy, yet it continues to be the leading cause of death in the US. The act of taking one’s life is caused by various, often untreated, mental health conditions. However, other problems contribute to suicide, such as relationships problems, abuse, substance use, or financial problems. In the US, men aged 69 years or older have the highest rates of suicide (American Psychological Association, n.d.). However, teens disturbingly come as the second highest rates of suicide in the US. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults. Teen suicide is a grave social and public health issue that requires more attention. In this Psychology research paper, the author shall define teen suicide, and discuss teen suicide rates, risk factors, and how it can be prevented.
Teen suicide is when an adolescent or young adult takes their own life on purpose (Stanford Children’s Health). This final act is often preceded by thoughts of wanting to die or suicide ideation, which in turn could be caused by mental health conditions.
Both teenagers and adults go through the same continuum of suicidal behavior. This includes suicidal ideation or thoughts of suicide ranging from vague ideas to specific plan and intent; suicide attempt or a non-fatal but injurious behavior directed toward oneself, often with the intention of dying as a result; and suicide which is “death caused by self-directed injurious behavior” (Kaslow, 2014, p.1). Most people only become aware of an at-risk teen’s problems when they reach suicide attempt or suicide; but they could have been silently battling with suicidal ideation for years.
Teen Suicide Rates
Research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that teen suicide rates increased by 56% between 2007 and 2017, and continues to be on the rise (Curtin & Heron, 2019). After slightly declining between 2000 and 2007, suicide rates among individuals aged 10 to 24 increased to 6.8 per 100,000 in 2007 and 10.6 per 100,000 by the end of 2017 (Curtin & Heron, 2019). The increase rates were highest from 2013 to 2017, during which teen suicide rates increased by 7% annually.
When broken down into smaller age demographics, statistics show that young adults, aged 20 to 24 are at most risk for suicide; but the other age groups also have disturbingly high rates. Individuals aged 10 to 14 had a suicide rate of 2.5 per 100,000. For 15- to 19-year-olds, the suicide rate was 8.7; and for 20- to 24-year-olds, 17.0 in 2017 (Curtis & Heron, 2019). This statistic demonstrates that suicide is the second leading cause of death for all three age groups (Curtin & Heron, 2019). The fact that suicide outranks homicide as the leading causes of death gives a clear perspective on the grim reality of teen suicide in the United States.
Data by the National Institute for Mental Health shows that males have higher risk for teen suicide (“Suicide”, n.d.). The rate of suicide is at 2.0 per 100,000 for females and 3.7 for males. For those aged 15 to 24, the suicide rates is 5.8 per 100,000 for females and 22.7 per 100,000 for males (“Suicide”, n.d.). However, teen suicides is not a problem faced by the United States alone. More than 200,000 adolescents and young adults died by suicide globally in 2016 (“Mental Health”, n.d.). This is evidently a global problem, so finding a way to prevent and treat teen suicides will save thousands of young lives all over the world.
The problem of teen suicide does not begin and end with suicides. As explained by the author earlier, there is a continuum of suicidal behavior. While there is a great number of teens who die due to suicide each year, there are substantially more teens who are hospitalized after nonfatal suicidal behavior (Stone et al., 2017). Suicidal behavior can begin as early 10 years old and, like most mental health conditions, may persist through adulthood. Teens who engage in suicidal behavior need to be treated appropriately while there is still hope.
Risk Factors of Teen Suicide
The risk factors that increase the likelihood of an adolescent or young adult to engage in suicidal behavior are complex. Dr. Kaslow presented three types of risk factors: intrapersonal, social or situational, and cultural or environmental (2014). These risk factors do not directly cause suicide; however, these factors place teens at an elevated risk of suicide.
Intrapersonal Risk Factors
Intrapersonal risk factors are factors that exist within the mind, and of which the individual may not be aware of. These include mental health conditions; substance abuse disorders; disciplinary problems; feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness; high-risk behaviors, sexual orientation confusion; or a previous suicide attempt (Kaslow, 2014). Teens and young adults exhibiting or experiencing any or a combination of these behaviors may be at risk of teen suicide.
Social or Situational Risk Factors
Social or situational risk factors involve a teen’s relationships with their family and peers. Situations that may increase feelings of isolation increase risk of suicide. These include a recent or serious loss (i.e., death, divorce, separation from a loved one, a broken relationship, or separation from a hobby); witness or experience of family violence; child abuse or neglect; bullying (being a victim or perpetrator of); family history of suicide; or lack of social support (Kaslow, 2014). Social or situational factors are aspects that an individual have no control over.
Cultural or Environmental Risk Factors
The last type of risk factor is cultural or environmental risk factors. These factors are influenced by the environment in which the teen lives or lived in, which affect their mental wellbeing. Certain cultures or environments at home or at school may aggravate a teen’s predisposition for certain mental disorders or simply aggravate already existing suicidal behavior (Kaslow, 2014). These include access to lethal means, which makes suicide a viable and accessible option. Cultural or religious beliefs that promote suicide as a noble act also increases teens’ risk for suicide (Kaslow, 2014). In contrast, the stigma that is associated with mental disorders and seeking help, compounded by various institutional barriers to getting the necessary help, also increases risk of suicide. Although more people have become aware of the realities of mental health and suicide, society has not yet shaken off the stigma toward those who need help. Individuals who know that they need help may be unwilling to do so for fear of being judged. Meanwhile, others may be unable to seek the help they need due to “lack of bilingual service providers, financial costs, and unreliable transportation” (Kaslow, 2014, p. 10).
To reiterate, these risk factors do not cause teen suicide, but they elevate the risk of an individual engaging in suicidal behavior or dying by suicide. These risk factors are not exclusive, either. Often, they are interrelated. For instance, an individual who may be exhibiting disciplinary problems or is bullying their peers may be a victim of child abuse or neglect or may be suffering from a mental disorder.
The study by Stephanie Doupnik and her colleagues (cited in Doupnik, 2017), which she narrates in the article “I treat teens who attempted suicide. Here’s what they told me.”, illuminates on the factors that trigger suicidal behavior in teens (2019). According to her, the factors that put a teen at risk of suicide are complex, and there is no one cause or trigger. However, their study found a common theme. Untreated or inadequately treated mental health conditions, social pressures, bullying, break-ups, illness or loss of a loved one, or being a victim or witness of some form of violence (Doupnik, 2019). When compared with the risk factors laid out by Kaslow (2014), the most common risk factors found by Doupnik and her colleagues are distributed among intrapersonal, social or situational, and cultural or environmental factors.
The Impact of Suicide on Family and Friends
One of the risk factors for teen suicide is family history of suicide. When someone dies by suicide, the people around them are affected. Naturally, the people most affected are those closest to them, namely their family and friends (Sandler, 2018). However, those who interact with them on a daily basis, such as classmates and teachers are also affected. In fact, even others in the community who may be familiar with the individual who died—be it neighbors or servers—may also be affected.
The people closest to the person who died by suicide have to deal with grief and loss while also potentially battle with the guilt that they may have not done enough (Stone, et al., 2017). However, due to the stigma associated with suicide, families and friends may hesitate seeking support or sharing about their grief (Sandler, 2018). Consequently, bottling up grief could lead to mental health conditions that may evolve into suicidal behavior. The stigma surrounding suicide is unhealthy for every one involved. Thus, efforts to prevent teen suicide should fight the stigma at its core, first so that more people will feel free to seek psychological help, and second so that families and friends do not isolate themselves in dealing with loss. A supportive and protective environment, such as the one suggested by Stone et al. (2017), is important in keeping communities, not just teens, mentally healthy.
Preventing Teen Suicide
The prevailing myth surrounding suicide is that there is nothing one can do if someone is determined to die. This is untrue and a dangerous myth for people to believe in. Like raising a child, preventing teen suicide also takes a village. Preventing teen suicide starts in the home and extends to the school and community.
Understanding of the risk factors of teen suicide discussed above is the foundation for teen suicide prevention. Raising awareness in the community could start with something as simple as watching movies about mental illness and handing out flyers. Parents, guardians, and educators should be vigilant about the signs of suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior in a teen. If an individual experiences a traumatic event or, even without apparent traumatic experience, exhibits changes in behavior, such as changes in eating habits, change in personality, change in behavior, change in sleeping patterns, or talks about dying, these should not be dismissed as teenage angst or melodrama. These should be taken seriously.
The teens interviewed by Doupnik and her colleagues (cited in Doupnik, 2019) expressed the positive impact of supportive environment in their mental health status. Parents or guardians talking with the teen at risk of suicide helps. Furthermore, it is necessary to maintain an environment that does not make suicide accessible. Families can reduce the risk by making lethal items inaccessible at home. But guardians must follow through with seeking professional help and continuously being there for the teen. More often than not, suicidal behavior is a symptom of an underlying mental health condition that needs to be treated. Thus, getting diagnosed and having access to the appropriate treatment is pivotal to the prevention of teen suicide.
Creating a safe environment involves the community as well. Stone et al. (2017), recommends community-based policies that aim to reduce excessive alcohol use. The development of protective environments that promote social connectedness are also crucial in reducing teen suicides.
Schools also have a place in the prevention of teen suicides apart from the identification of at-risk individuals. Experts emphasize on the importance of life skills in protecting teens from suicidal behavior. Life skills, which include “coping and problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, conflict resolution, and critical thinking” equip teens with the skills to help them tackle challenges and adapt to stress (Stone et al., p. 31). Schools can also develop parenting and family relationship programs that can improve and strengthen family relationships and minimizing the chances of children and teens from experiencing or internalizing traumatic events at home.
Finally, suicidal behavior is best addressed through treatment by a professional. One of the main reasons teen suicidal behavior goes untreated are barriers to psychological health (Stone et al., 2017). Mental health conditions are usually excluded in health insurance policies, and with rising health costs, it is no surprise that most go untreated. Furthermore, there is a disconnect between the needs of underserved communities, such as non-English speaking individuals (Stone et al., 2017). Without bilingual speakers, non-English-speaking families may find it difficult to find appropriate help. As the Stone et al. (2017), also suggests, these barriers to mental health can be resolved through a change in the system. Efficient and effective delivery of mental health services must be prioritized, especially in high at-risk areas.
Teen suicide is a preventable tragedy. Suicide has long been misunderstood and neglected, which is possibly the reason suicide rates and teen suicide rates in the United States peaked in this decade. However, psychologists continue to work toward better understanding teen suicide and suicidal behavior, and they continue to develop better ways to prevent and treat it. Given the gravity of the situation, the United States must prioritize preventing teen suicides by implementing systematic changes in the healthcare and educational system that would pave the way for holistic treatment of mental health conditions and prevention of suicide.
American Psychological Association (APA). (n.d.) Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/suicide/
Curtin, S. C. & Heron, M. (2019, October). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10-24: United States, 2007-2017 [Data Brief]. National Center for Health Statistics, 352. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db352.htm
Doupnik, S. (2019, November 16). I treated teens who attempted suicide. Here’s what they told me. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/10/30/20936636/suicide-mental-health-suicidal-thoughts-teens
Kaslow, N. J. (2014). Suicidal behavior in children and adolescents. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/about/governance/president/suicidal-behavior-adolescents.pdf
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Stone, D., Holland, H., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A., Davis, S., & Wilkins, N. (2017) Preventing suicide: A technical package of policy, programs, and practices [PDF]. Division of Violence Prevention – Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicideTechnicalPackage.pdf
Sandler, E. P. (2018, September 10). The ripple effect of suicide. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2018/The-Ripple-Effect-of-Suicide
Suicide. (n.d.) National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved September 11, 2020, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml