There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a life cut short.
In America, more people are taking their lives than they were about 15 years ago, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found.
The suicide rate among Americans was seeing a steady decline from 1986 to the turn of the century, but the 15 years after have seen more than a quarter increase in incidence. About 13 in every 100,000 Americans committed suicide from 1999 to 2014, the CDC report states.
For men, the highest rates were among those aged 75 or older. Women ages 45 to 64, the largest group, saw a 63 percent increase since 1999.
The largest spike, while only comprising 150 cases in 2014, was among girls aged 10 to 14, a 200 percent increase over 15 years.
Suicide rates for boys aged 10 to 14 are the lowest for men of any age. However, there was still a 37 percent increase. The number of cases is 73 percent higher for girls of the same age group.
The increases in suicides among children and teens highlight the complexity of issues they face, namely the rise and influence of social media, cyber bullying, and the potential infectious nature of suicide.
Dr. Theodore Henderson, Ph.D., a child psychiatrist in the Denver area, said there are numerous factors at play that could help explain these rates, including the increase in autism, black box warnings on antidepressants, and the advent of social media.
“The most disturbing thing is that the idea of suicide is getting younger and younger,” he told Healthline.
Autism, Mental Health, Antidepressants, and Suicide
Over the 15-year study, there have been several shifts in childhood mental health, including the incidence of diagnosed cases of autism.
In 2007, an estimated one in 150 children had a disorder on the autism spectrum. In its latest estimates, the CDC says that’s now about one in 68 children.
Since children with autism are at a four to sevenfold risk of suicide, Henderson says while it could be a factor, he’s hard pressed to say it was a big contributor in the spike in child suicides.
Another factor was how childhood depression was treated during those years. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the harshest black box warnings on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant medication because children and adolescents were having an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior.
The increased risk, as well as doctors’ aversion to prescribing them following the warning, helped increase incidents of attempted suicide, Henderson said.
In later reviews, the FDA found treating children with antidepressants outweighs the chances of adverse events including suicidal behavior. These episodes typically only occur in a small subset of children.
The Effect of Social Media and the Contagion of Suicide
Child suicides often make national headlines, especially if the child was bullied at school or online for their development level or sexual orientation.
In October 2012, a Canadian teen uploaded a video of herself to YouTube where she told her story of online harassment and bullying. The black-and-white video shows her flipping through index cards written on with black marker.
The following day she committed suicide. The video went viral and her name and story became an immediate international talking point. Different uploads of the video have since amassed more than 40 million views.
Six months earlier, an Australian teen made a nearly identical video shortly before she, too, attempted suicide. The Australian girl died after being on life support for three years. She made headlines again when her parents pulled her off life support.
While these tragic stories are told and retold through the media, the way they’re reported may help perpetuate even more suicides.
Madelyn Gould and Alison Lake of the New York State Psychiatric Institute looked at the science behind the contagious nature of suicide. They found that suicide rates go up following an increase in the frequency of media stories about suicide and the reverse when fewer stories are reported.
One major influencer is how the stories are reported. The more dramatic headlines, the more front-page placements, repetitive reporting on the same suicide, and definitively labeling the death as a suicide all have been associated with increased rates of suicide.
“Suicide contagion exists and contributes to suicide risk along with psychopathology, biological vulnerability, family characteristics, and stressful life events,” Gould and Lake wrote in a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences.
In other words, hearing news of a person’s suicide—whether that someone is known, a celebrity, or someone whose death garners nationwide attention—doesn’t automatically cause someone to commit suicide. It can, however, give someone with suicidal tendencies a push to take that final step.
In his bestselling book, “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote about an epidemic of teenage suicide during the 1970s and 80s in the South Pacific islands of Micronesia where rates were ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. It started with one young man and caught on.
“Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances,” Gladwell summarizes on his website.
While these mimicked suicides were geographically tied to one another, the internet and social media have eliminated geographical boundaries. To many teens, the online world is a very real one, especially if mean or embarrassing things are posted about them.
Previously, bullying had to be done in person, over the phone, or whispered behind someone’s back. Now, hundreds of people can get a message instantly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as smart phones and cameras are ubiquitously present and ready to transmit.
“I find it very frightening,” Henderson said. “Social media allows people to be irresponsible with what they say.”
With the dawn of social media and smartphones, youth were the quickest adopters. Last year, one Pew Research Center survey found a quarter of teens use the internet “almost constantly,” while half say they use it several times a day.
Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are the dominating social media channels for teens, according to Pew research, and these sites are where children can be victims of bullying.
When news of a suicide permeates that world, it can have different effects on different people.
Like a virus, a healthy individual has a better chance of fighting off the bug. Those who are already unhealthy—mentally or emotionally, in terms of suicidal behavior—can be more susceptible.
“’Does every kid wrestle with suicide?’ No. Do some? ‘Yes,’” Henderson said. “Social media plays a big, big part in this.”
What Can Parents Do About It?
Being active in your child’s life is the first thing a parent can do to spot signs of anxiety, depression, or suicidal behavior. If a child starts becoming withdrawn or obsessive with things on social media, that’s a good time to have a discussion.
Henderson recommends parents follow or befriend their children on social media, and have a contract to monitor whom they’re texting about, and what they’re texting about. Phones, Henderson says, are a privilege, not a right.
Parental control software like Net Nanny can help parents determine what’s age-appropriate for their children to be looking at.
Also, look for signs of bullying, whether online or in person, and help them to find appropriate ways to deal with it.
“Let them know you’re always there to talk,” Henderson said.