Teen Suicide: A Look Behind the Numbers

BlogHealthOct 22 2013

While National Suicide Prevention Week and Mental Illness Awareness Week have recently passed, it is important that we continue the conversation with a focus on teen suicide.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10-19. Although the percentage of U.S. high school students who considered suicide fell by nearly half between 1991 to 2009 (from 29 percent to 14 percent), this percentage has increased slightly in recent years. In 2011, roughly one in every six high school students considered suicide. The data also point to important differences by gender, race, and ethnicity. Among high school students, for example, girls are more likely to have planned or attempted suicide than boys, while Hispanic and black students are more likely to have attempted suicide than white students. However, the suicide rate is over three times higher for boys than girls, and is higher for white than for black or Hispanic youth. Further, suicide rates are actually highest among Native American/Alaska Native youth compared with other racial/ethnic groups

What is behind these numbers? One concern is that too many young people are simply not receiving much needed screening and effective treatment for . While youth can face a range of barriers to accessing mental health care, (including lack of insurance and poor coordination of care), reducing the stigma around mental illness is also key to ensuring more adolescents seek help. Some public health researchers further advocate for paying greater attention to “means reduction” in suicide-prevention efforts—in other words, focusing on suicidal youths’ access to highly lethal means of committing suicide, such as a parent’s gun. Indeed, as we continue to debate the future of gun control laws, it’s worth noting that firearms are used in 40 percent of teen suicides. Additionally, as the youth population becomes increasingly diverse, we will also need to ensure that culturally-appropriate services and supports are available and accessible to teens, their families, and their communities.

More attention should also be paid to how a changing technology and media landscape affects teens’ experience with bullying and mental health. Teen suicide was again in the national news last month with the story of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who ended her life apparently in response to persistent cyber-bullying. Sedwick’s death is just the latest in a series of high profile cases in which a young person committed suicide after being victimized by cyber-bullying.

Suicide is a tragedy at any life stage, and suicide prevention efforts need to be targeted across the lifespan. However, as we reflect on suicide and mental illness more broadly, let’s make sure efforts to understand and prevent suicide among our nation’s youth remain part of the conversation.

Elisabeth Golub, Research Analyst