A new finding from a Centers for Disease Control report has epidemiologists and mental health experts stumped and concerned. According to the report, teenage suicide rates have increased nearly 56% from 2007 to 2017. The rate of 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people between the ages of 10 and 24 has jumped to about 10.8 deaths. What’s worse, mental health experts have little explanation for what’s driving this increase, making it difficult to know what tack to take in terms of providing early intervention.
In itself, the fact that suicide rates among teens are rising is somewhat to be expected: suicide rates have risen across the board over the past few years, rising 33% from 1999 to 2017, according to data from the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Yet the rise in teenage suicides specifically has far outpaced that of the increase in suicides in general. It is now the second-leading cause of death for teenagers, right behind accidental deaths.
Alarmingly, public health experts have no idea why the suicide rate for young adults is increasing so rapidly. “The truth is anyone who says they definitively know what is causing it doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Ursula Whiteside, a researcher with the University of Washington, recently told the Washington Post. “It’s a complex problem with no easy answers so far.”
Myriad potential explanations have been offered to explain this worrisome phenomenon, from the rise of social media to more demanding academic schedules to shows like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why contributing to the glamorization of suicide. And what makes this particular issue difficult to study is that there’s a grain of truth to many of these explanations: for instance, heavy social media use has been linked to higher rates of depression and low self-esteem, per one JAMA study released earlier this year (though it did not assess whether social media use had any correlation with higher rates of self-harm or suicide specifically). Another study from last spring also found that teenage suicide rates did experience a slight spike following the release of 13 Reasons Why, though the effect was surprisingly only statistically significant among teenage boys, not girls. (In the face of mounting criticism regarding the show’s depiction of suicide, Netflix added a warning video and mental health resources for teen viewers.)
Of course, it’s crucial to note that correlation does not equal causation, and most mental health experts caution against isolating one “cause” or factor when discussing suicide. Though we know there are certain factors, such as a history of mental illness or substance use, that put teenagers at increased risk for taking their own lives, the mental health establishment simply doesn’t have enough research to draw “firm scientific conclusions” about what causes spikes in suicide, Dr. April Foreman, a psychologist and a board member at the American Association of Suicidology, previously told Rolling Stone. Regardless of what external factors may or may not be contributing, it is “much more likely there are complex things going on in society. We just don’t understand suicide well enough,” she said.
That said, research does indicate that early intervention in the form of initiatives like suicide screening at emergency rooms and pediatricians’ offices does play a role in helping to prevent suicide, as does exposure to positive stories about people recovering from feelings of suicidal ideation. Which is why it’s important to interpret the CDC’s finding not as cause for panic or rampant speculation, but as a call for heightened awareness for teens who may be at increased risk.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741.