Suicide rates among all age groups in the United States rose 30 percent between 2000 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but experts are particularly concerned about the higher number deaths for adolescents and young adults.
In a research letter published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, first author Oren Miron—a research associate in biomedical informatics at Harvard Medical School—analyzed data from CDC Underlying Cause of Death database, which tracks death certificates and population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The analysis found that there were 6,241 reported suicides for people 15 to 24 in 2017—marking the most suicides since 2000. The rate for those 15 to 19 increased from 8 per 100,000 in 2000 to 11.8 per 100,000 in 2017, and those 20 to 24 increased from 12.5 per 100,000 in 2000 to 17 per 100,000 in 2017.
Mariam Wahby, Ph.D., licensed marriage and family therapist at Memorial Hermann Behavioral Health, said the article supports what most mental health professionals would report from the field.
“It’s shocking that it’s a huge jump, but not surprising in practice,” she said. “It’s a really sad thing to see and hear young people are faced with so much grief and stress that they’re finding themselves at such a young age feeling their life isn’t worth living. They’ve had 15, 16, less than 20 years of life—feeling like that’s enough, it’s not worth it, it’s been too much already.”
Among all ages, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the country, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34.
“It’s an unfortunate reality,” said Iram Kazimi, M.D., director of the Inpatient Pediatric Bipolar Program at UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center. “The common thread that’s really obvious is that there’s not one reason why suicide rates are increasing. It’s multifactorial.”
While the authors of the study state the increase in suicide rates could be due to better reporting, they also offer two other possible factors for the uptick: the increase of opioid abuse and social media.
“The rise in suicide rates has really coincided and correlated with the opioid crisis,” Kazimi said. “We know that a lot of studies talk about children who come from homes where there’s a parent with an opioid addiction. They’re at much higher risk for self-harm and suicide.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) identified prescription drug misuse, including opioids, as the fastest-growing drug problem in the country. Thankfully, the trend of opioid misuse is on the downturn. In a survey among high school seniors, pain medication use dropped from 9.5 percent in 2004 to 3.4 percent in 2018, Vicodin decreased from 10.5 percent in 2003 to 1.7 percent in 2018 and Oxycontin dipped from 5.5 percent in 2005 to 2.3 percent in 2018.
However, opioid misuse is still a major concern. In 2015, there were 4,235 drug-related overdoses among people 15 to 24 with more than half caused by opioids. For every young adult overdose death, the CDC estimates that there are 119 emergency room visits and 22 treatment admissions.
In addition to opioids, experts believe social media plays an undeniable role in the increase in suicides among adolescents.
“There’s just so much pressure to be considered successful academically, athletically, socially,” Wahby said. “That, and the constant access to criticism through social media. It’s inescapable. If I’m feeling bullied, there’s no safe haven anymore.”
Wahby added that she hopes these findings encourage people to talk about suicide more openly, increase awareness and, ultimately, curb the trend.
“This is a huge issue that shouldn’t be pushed aside,” she said. “There should be a message attached to it that says open communication isn’t going to put the idea in someone’s head. You’re not going to create a suicidal feeling by discussing suicide. … It’s hard to be a teen. It’s hard to be a person period. Recognizing someone’s struggle and feeling comfortable to speak up and speak to them is the biggest takeaway of all of this.”
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