Why are rates of completed suicide exploding among the young?

shutterstock_328987457The National Center for Health Statistics issued a stunning report ten days ago examining suicide rates in the U.S. over the period from 1999 to 2014. Across the board, increases in rates of completed suicide were noted in men and women of all ages. The most striking increases were observed among 10-14 year old girls. Among males, the largest percentage increase in completed suicide was seen among 10-14 year old boys.

Here’s a summary of the key findings. For more, you can read the entire article from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control here

From 1999 through 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased 24%, from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000 population, with the pace of increase greater after 2006.

From 1999 through 2014, the percent increase in the age-adjusted suicide rate was greater for females (45% increase) than males (16% increase), resulting in a narrowing of the gender gap in suicide rates (as measured by rate ratios).

Although based on a small number of suicides compared with other age groups (150 in 2014), the suicide rate for females aged 10–14 had the largest percent increase (200%) during the time period, tripling from 0.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.5 in 2014.

While males aged 10–14 had the lowest suicide rate of all age groups (among males), this group experienced the second-largest percent increase (37%) from 1999 through 2014 (from 1.9 to 2.6).

Suicide rates for females, by age: United States, 1999 and 2014 Source: NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality.

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Suicide rates for males, by age: United States, 1999 and 2014 Source: NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality.

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What the statistics don’t tell us is WHY we’re seeing such a significant increase in the rates of suicide among children, teens and young adults, along with sizable increases in suicide rates among adults of middle age, especially women. What might be causing the increase? I’d like to put forth a few “educated guesses.”

The pressure to succeed. The pressure operates on so many levels. Teachers and schools are under great pressure for kids to perform well on standardized tests. My all-time productivity record for time spent with kids in our practice was the two weeks prior to the first Common Core testing. Parents put pressure on their kids to succeed academically because many need their kids to qualify for substantial scholarships in order to help with the outrageous cost of a college education. They also put pressure on their kids to do well academically because higher education is increasingly necessary for the types of jobs that will enable them to generate a stable income sufficient to support a family. Kids put immense pressure on themselves to do well in school. All too frequently, a poor test result is viewed as a cataclysmic event by the kids I see.

We deny our kids opportunities to develop resiliency. I appreciate the initiatives and programs done in our schools to prevent bullying because the effects of bullying are especially severe for the kinds of kids we see in our practice. While we’re teaching kids not to bully others, we also need to be teaching them how to deal with adversity. In a pluralistic society, our kids are going to encounter people with whom they will intensely disagree. In our efforts to protect kids against emotional hurt and failure, we all too often have left them without the mental and emotional tools to overcome the setbacks or conflict that are inevitable later in life.

My high school junior expressed an interest in taking a visit to Emory University the week before this happened. In my humble opinion, the extent to which college administrators enable the kids within their learning communities to function as emotional invalids borders on criminal negligence. When we teach our kids that they can’t function outside of “safe spaces,” we end up with this…

I feel bad for the kid in this video. How does one cope with the demands of live with the capacity for emotional self-regulation of a two year-old? “Snowflakes” don’t do very well when the heat gets turned up.

When parents continually rescue their kids from the consequences of their own failures, they go away to college without the life skills to interface with professors when they have a setback or the study skills and self-discipline to overcome a poor grade. I see this time and time again in my practice…children of parents who are calling the principal or headmaster every time their kid has a conflict with a teacher crash and burn when the inevitable challenges hit after they go away to college.

The impact of social media. A common thread among conditions that contribute to the overall sense of hopelessness that all too often leads to suicidal thoughts and behavior (anxiety, OCD, depression) is the propensity for an unrealistically negative view of oneself. Social media radically expands the opportunity for kids and adults to experience despair through exposure to video, images and text with the potential to shatter the already fragile self-images of all too many children, teens and adults.

You’re a girl in middle school who feels unpopular…not only can you now see the “popular” kids from school having fun with one another on Instagram, but you can measure your relative lack of popularity by comparing the number of followers you have against theirs. No one asked you to the prom? You now have the opportunity to see the boy you hoped to dance with at the prom enjoying himself with someone else thanks to Vine and Snapchat. Stuck in a dead-end job and struggling financially? Check out the pictures your neighbors and old friends from high school are posting online of their exotic vacations. Feel inadequate as a parent? It’s pretty hard to watch the “brag fest” on Facebook as parents post the scholarship offers their kids have earned and admission letters to prestigious colleges while your kid is looking forward to community college and a part-time job.

shutterstock_113334331A culture in which sexual liberty is a dominant value and sexual expression is central to identity. There aren’t a lot of sexual taboos remaining in our culture and the taboos that remain are quickly disappearing. And a lot of people are getting hurt as a result…some, fatally.

Teaching from the New Testament regarding sexual behavior isn’t there because God’s a prude or some heavenly killjoy. God invented sex. Sex in his creation was (and is) intended for good. The rules about sex are lovingly given to us for our own protection.

From a mental health perspective, some people need rules governing their sexual behavior more than others do. This is an issue I see with the kids in my practice all the time.  I wrote at length here about the data linking sexual relationships to suicide risk in teens. I see this impacting kids…and their parents in other ways. The folks who shape our culture…people in entertainment, education, the media, sports – may have the money or resources to mitigate the consequences of their pursuit of sexual freedom. Jennifer Garner’s kids aren’t going to find themselves in poverty or having to change schools after their father (allegedly) had a fling with their nanny. But the same may not be true when dad makes $17/hour working in a factory and runs off with a co-worker.

What do you do when you’re emotionally fragile and the person with whom you’re intimate leaves you for someone else? What do you do when you’re a ninth grader in a culture that values physical attractiveness when you’re not very attractive? Or when your parent invites a serial abuser into your home because they’re desperate for a relationship to help them fill the emptiness they experience? Or a woman who has developed an identity around her attractiveness when the inevitable changes associated with the aging process start to take hold? From where do you derive your hope in a better future as time takes its toll?

Percent distribution of the 10 leading causes of death, by age group: United States, 2013

Percent distribution of the 10 leading causes of death, by age group: United States, 2013

While we need more mental health professionals and more effective treatments for depression and professionals with better training to recognize the signs associated with suicidal behavior, the increase in suicide we’ve seen in recent years, especially acute over the last ten years are more a sign of a sick society than anything else. Suicide is (again, after dropping to #3 in the first few years of this century) the second leading cause of death among persons between 10 and 24. Suicide is more than 2 1/2 times more common than deaths from cancer in this age group. That statistic should outrage the leaders of our culture. Yet, the pace of cultural change that ultimately fuels the despair that leads to suicide quickens by the day.

While we as Christians don’t have all the answers for preventing suicide, I can’t help but believe that kids and adults who are vulnerable to mental illnesses that contribute to suicide are far better off in a church where they’re seeking to live in accordance with Jesus’ teaching than not. Our faith teaches us of the true meaning of success, provides guidance for dealing with the inevitability of adversity, instructs us as to the source of our true value and offers us protection from destructive patterns of behavior. In a broken world filled with broken brains, too many people will continue to die by their own hands. But the medical research clearly supports the idea here, here and here that faith plays an important protective role against suicidal behavior.

Brian and KathleenEditor’s note: Here’s a link to an interview featuring Dr. Grcevich on Brian and Kathleen Mornings from Moody Radio in Cleveland in which he discusses further the findings from this study, along with ideas expressed in this post.

Join Dr. G LIVE at Key Ministry’s Facebook page at 12:00 PM Eastern time on Thursday, May 5. He’ll be taking your questions for Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. Post your questions here in advance under the comments section!

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shutterstock_291556127Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families to better understand the nature of trauma in children and teens, Jolene Philo’s series on PTSD in children, and series on other mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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One Response to Why are rates of completed suicide exploding among the young?

  1. Todd Brooks says:

    Awesome post, G!

    Like

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