As the rate of suicide among teen girls increases, experts look at changing the way we talk to young women about the topic.
We may need to rethink how we talk to girls about suicide.
The suicide rate among 10- to 19-year-olds has been steadily rising over the past decade, up
Perhaps more importantly, as that rate goes up, the suicide rate among teenage girls is accounting for a significantly greater proportion of those deaths than at any other point in the past 40 years, according to a new study published in
Researchers and doctors have long known that girls contemplate and attempt suicide more frequently than boys.
However, death from suicide has historically been higher among teen boys, who typically choose more lethal means, such as firearms.
Now, researchers from The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, report that female youth suicide rates showed their largest increase compared to male youth suicide rates between 2007 and 2016.
In that decade, suicide rates in girls ages 10 to 14 rose 12 percent per year, compared to 7 percent for boys. In teens ages 15 to 19, rates of suicide among girls rose almost 8 percent, but only 3 percent for boys.
Suicide deaths among boys are still more common. Boys 10 to 14 are 1.8 times more likely to die by suicide than girls, but the gap is narrowing.
In 1975, for example, boys ages 10 to 14 died from suicide 3.14 times more often than girls.
These conclusions come after researchers examined the suicide deaths of more than 85,000 teenagers between 1975 and 2016, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study’s authors found that deaths from suicide — the second leading cause of death among America’s youth — steadily declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, reaching its lowest point in 2007.
Then, the numbers started to climb again.
Suicide in girls made up a disproportionate amount of that increase, at least compared to the decades before.
The data from the study also pointed to shifts in suicide means.
Traditionally, girls have selected less lethal options, such as cutting or poisoning, but between 2007 and 2016, female suicide rates from hanging or suffocation increased and began approaching the rates of males.
This study wasn’t designed to determine the reasons for suicide among teenagers, but the authors wrote that interventions should become a focus for parents, educators, and health professionals.
“A narrowing gap between male and female youth suicide rates underscores the importance of early suicide prevention efforts that take both sex and developmental level into consideration,” the study’s authors wrote.
Another thing that has become increasingly widespread in the past decade is the use of social media.
Indeed, many health professionals draw a line between the increases in teen suicide rates and the growth of networking platforms.
“When boys go to social media, they are looking for excitement. They can’t stand boredom. When girls reach out to social media, they want to find comfort through bonding and closeness,” Dr. Mark Goulston, co-creator and moderator of the documentary “Stay Alive,” a suicide prevention documentary, and author of “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone,” told Healthline.
But what girls are getting back in return isn’t always what they bargained for, he explains.
“You’re reaching out for love and they will ridicule you. They’ll take delight in it. You’re baring your neck, you’re in pain and hoping for comfort, and they’ll make you feel worse,” Goulston says.
“If girls are desperate and they can’t get the bonding, they may become exhibitionists, and when that happens, they invite further cyber bullying, ridicule, and threats,” he said.
Experts tell Healthline that any intervention for girls has to focus on what drives girls to social media — acceptance, bonding, connecting with others — as well as helping girls discover a more positive environment, one that lowers the risks of rejection and humiliation that so often drive girls to a point of loneliness and desperation.
Feeling connected, Goulston says, rewires a girl’s brain.
“When you cause girls to feel ‘felt,’ oxytocin goes up,” he said. “They start to cry with relief. The blood flow returns to their upper brain and they feel relieved.”
Beyond social media, teens today often face a multitude of factors that can contribute to anxiety and depression.
Indeed, one survey found that 7 in 10 teens see the two conditions as a “major problem” among their peers.
Pressures such as college readiness, getting good grades, financial concerns, and being physically attractive were leading burdens they faced.
Goulston says young people pick up and recognize that their parents are often stressed and the last thing many children — both boys and girls — want to do is add more to their parents’ plates
“What happens when you bond with someone and you basically feel felt is it enables you to go from anxiety and fear to crying with relief,” he says. “But a lot of teens aren’t learning to bond from their parents because their parents are so overwhelmed.”
“An overlooked contributor to the increase in child suicide is the disappearance of family dinner time in many homes,” Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author, told Healthline.
“This used to be the time when parents and children communicated about their day and their worries. Now, too many families go their separate ways at dinner and kids become invisible until it’s too late.”
If you suspect your child is depressed, anxious, or needs help with suicidal thoughts, experts told Healthline you should take these steps:
Recognize warning signs
“Isolation from friends and family, changes in mood including irritability and depression, a sudden dip in academic grades and performance, and avoiding school, social activities, and other responsibilities” can be signs that a problem is developing, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” and child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV.
Talk to your child
“Ask your child if they have a plan to [attempt] suicide,” says Katie Ziskind, LMFT, owner of Wisdom Within Counseling.
“Simply asking if your child has a plan will not make them [attempt] suicide. Instead, it brings awareness that you care, that you’re willing to have these difficult and important conversations about suicide, and you are concerned about their mental health.”
“Getting your child [to] a safe place, such as a therapist’s office, can help prevent suicide,” Ziskind says. “Your child will tell their therapist things they may not be able to tell you because they’re scared of hurting your feelings as a parent.”
Teens are stereotyped as chronically hormonal or emotional, but parents shouldn’t dismiss every element of behavior as age induced.
“Adults should take it very seriously when any kid tells them or shows them by their actions that they are anxious or depressed,” Lieberman says.
“It takes a lot to admit to this, so they are making themselves vulnerable by sharing it and this information must not be mocked or it can make them feel desperate.”
Lieberman says when you’re concerned for your child, whether they’ve expressed suicidal thoughts or not, you should set up an appointment with a mental health professional for an evaluation and therapy. Early intervention is best.
If you’re considering taking your own life, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.