Middle schoolers are now just as likely to die from suicide as from traffic accidents, according to newly published data from the Centers for Disease Control.
Death among adolescents is rare, but a recent spike in suicides among young people concerned federal researchers enough to start tracking it. They found that in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the suicide rate among children ages 10 to 14 actually caught up to the rate of death from traffic accidents. This stands in stark contrast to 1999, when the number of deaths from motor vehicle injuries was four times higher than death by suicide and homicide. By 2014, the death rate from car crashes had been cut in half, but the suicide rate nearly doubled. What’s causing this spike in adolescent suicides?
Adolescence has always been a self-esteem minefield. But today’s teenagers struggle with uniquely modern attacks on their mental health. Social networking sites makes it easier for bullies to hide behind avatars and harass their victims well past school hours. Popularity is now quantified by the number of friends, likes, and comments one garners, all of which are open to public scrutiny. Add that to the usual pressure from parents, teachers, and an increasingly competitive college admissions process and you’ve got a powder-keg of angst.
More troubling still, researchers found that suicide is contagious, spreading either directly (knowing the victim) or indirectly (hearing about a suicide through the media or word of mouth). These same researchers found that people ages 15 to 19 are two to four times more prone to suicide contagion than people in other age groups. These findings are from 1990, but are more relevant than ever now that teenagers are hyper-connected through social media.
This contagion has given rise to suicide clusters (defined as an unusually high number of suicides in an area in a short period of time) in some communities. Between 2013 and 2015, 29 kids in one Colorado county, many from just a handful of schools, had killed themselves. Palo Alto saw two suicide clusters within the last seven years. Three teenage girls in a suburb of Washington, DC committed suicide within three months of each other, an alarming rate for a county that saw only 13 suicides among girls between 2003 and 2013.
While social media is partly to blame, suicides are almost always the cause of underlying mental health issues. This sudden rise in teen suicides highlights the urgent need for more comprehensive mental health services both in and out of schools. Officials at the local, state, and federal level are now working to identify risk factors and implement suicide prevention programs aimed at young people.