From endless scrolling on Instagram to graphic TV shows like 13 Reasons Why, US suicide prevention experts have several theories about what is causing increased suicides among the nation’s youth.
Suicide is the number two cause of death among children aged 10 to 14 years, and teen suicide rates have almost tripled from 2007 to 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The suicide of young people in Ohio reflects this trend. The number of suicides among Ohio residents aged 10 to 24 jumped 64.4% from 2007 to 2018, from 7.3 to 12 deaths per 100,000, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
“The answer to ‘Why do teenage suicide rates increase?’ a lot of speculation and data, “said John Ackerman, suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “It’s complicated. Suicides are almost always multi-determinative.”
The main cause of suicide is an underlying mental illness – more than 90% of those who die from suicide struggle with mental disorders, said Dr. John Campo, a psychiatrist and chief behavioral health officer at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
Most of these people are also more likely to use drugs and suffer from addictions, Campo said.
“That can make people feel more impulsive and do things that are more dangerous,” he said.
ADHD, behavioral problems, anxiety and depression also increase among children, but access to appropriate care is not easily accessible.
The underlying mental health problems reduce a child’s ability to cope with external triggers or trauma, making them more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and attempts, Ackerman said.
“Often there are these precursors – like triggers or triggers,” he said. “There is something that increases the vulnerability of young people.”
While it’s easy to blame social media for increasing youth suicide, Ackerman says most of the research linking social media and suicide is largely correlational, meaning that direct relationships cannot be withdrawn.
The use of social media can be damaging if children already have pre-existing mental health problems and consume information in an unhealthy way, said Ackerman.
He advises adults to set the amount of screen time and type of content their children consume.
“If you are a person who uses social media more than five hours a day, if you are someone who compares yourself to other people while on social media, it is not good for anxiety or depression,” he said.
However, Ackerman said it was difficult to directly link social media with suicide, especially when other countries – with the same access to technology as the US – did not experience teenage suicide at the same pace.
Compared to other developed countries, the US has unlimited access to firearms, which might explain the higher suicide rates of young people, he said.
To reduce the increasing number of suicides by young people, Weaver Middle School in Hilliard established the Hope Squad program to help students face mental health challenges.
Phil Cox, an eighth grader at Weaver and a member of Hope Squad, said the program is a peer-to-peer suicide prevention group through which selected students spread kindness and offer resources to struggling colleagues.
“If someone is depressed or having difficulty or even just stressing something, we are there to be friends and talk about it,” he said.
Cox and fellow eighth grader Makayla Hendrick were inspired to become members of the Hope Army after being personally influenced by suicide.
Hendrick said Hope Squad members used social media to monitor their colleagues’ posts for signs of risky behavior, but he also said social media could be a “stick” to other problems.
“‘I don’t really like this,’ and that’s where many people start feeling ‘They don’t like me’ or ‘Maybe I’m not worth it,'” he said.
“Adoration” of suicide in pop culture also presents a serious risk of exacerbating the problem, said Ackerman.
Around 195 more suicides than were thought to be reported in the country that month 13 Reason why, the popular Netflix series, aired in 2017, led Ackerman and other suicide prevention experts to believe that the show had adverse consequences.
Detailed graphics and images of suicide can be retraumatising and increasing the risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts, he said.
In addition, suicide by the show’s protagonist is illustrated as a means of achieving change or revenge, which according to Ackerman romanticizes suicide and makes young people ignore that the main contributors to suicide are underlying mental health problems and external triggers.
He said it was important to find a balance between raising awareness of suicide without doing it in a way that would trigger people.
“If you are going to share your story, and if you focus on what your struggle is, but how you have learned to deal effectively … it can actually have some benefits in reducing suicide,” he said.
In the end, Campo said, suicide research requires funding as much as research into other forms of disease – cancer, influenza, heart disease, diabetes – so that no family or individual must bear the consequences.
“Why didn’t you tell me how many suicides were acceptable in Columbus?” He asked. “The only acceptable number is zero.” – The Columbus Dispatch / Tribune News Service
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