Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents. An average of 3,069 adolescents in grade 9-12 attempt suicide each year. In 2017, 6,252 people between 15 and 24 years old died by suicide (Youth Suicide Statistics from The Parent Resource Program). Those are staggering numbers. We need to do something to decrease these numbers. And, our families are a great place to begin.
A study published in the fall of 2019 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry looked at the “peer-adult networks” in 38 high schools (including 10,291 students) in New York State and North Dakota. Their findings suggest:
Students who attempted suicide were
those least connected to their peers.
Students who attempted suicide were
the least connected to trusted adults and, in fact, most likely to be
isolated from adults.
And, having 10% fewer students
isolated from adults in a school setting resulted in a 20% reduction in the
average rate of suicide attempts in that school.
Overall, schools in which students
had more friendships and were part of an interconnected social network that
included trusted adults, experienced fewer suicide attempts!
Of course, this study was completed
in school settings. However, the principles can apply even in the community and
our homes. This study informs us that our teens need a strong social network
that includes peers and other trusted adults. You can help build this strong, protective
social network around your teen by involving them in groups such as:
Local churches offer youth groups, Sunday School programs, volunteer groups, and small group studies. Involve your whole family in the church and each family member may find a group in which to become actively involved and supported.
Sporting involvement also offers a wonderful opportunity for your teen to become involved in a protective social network. They can become involved in community sports’ teams, traveling sports’ teams, school sports’ teams, or recreational club teams.
Community bands and theater groups also present an opportunity to involve your teen in a positive, supportive social network with peers and trusted adults.
Possibilities for involvement in a positive social network for your teen can arise from any area or interest: arts, chess, hiking…anything that might be a strength or interest for your teen. The MeetUp App may also provide ideas and opportunities. Each opportunity will provide your teen the chance to develop a social network of peers and trusted adults…and so decrease the chances of suicidal attempts.
In searching for potential causes of this rapid increase in depression and suicidal rates among teens, researchers realized that cell phone ownership increased dramatically over the same time period. In 2012, about half of Americans owned a cell phone. By 2015, only 3 years later, 92% of teens and young adults owned one. This does not mean that cell phones cause depression, but an association between does exist between the two. Interestingly, this same research does not reveal a link between homework load, academic pressure, or financial problems and the rapid rise in depression and suicidal rates among teens even though it looked for such links (The Risk of Teen Depression and Suicide is Linked to Smartphone Use, Study Says). On the other hand, the study did reveal that:
13-18-year-olds who spend 3 or more hours a day on electronic devices are 35% more likely to exhibit a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour or less on electronic devices,
13-18-year-olds who spend 5 hours or more a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour on electronic devices.
Fortunately, recognizing the link
between electronic devices and depression and suicide offers us a way to contain
the epidemic of depression and suicide rates among teens…not a complete cure,
but a way to reduce the spread of an epidemic robbing us of our teens. With that in mind, I offer four suggestions.
Limit screen time to 2 hours per day or less. Our teens have not developed the skills to manage the addictive nature of electronic devices. (Perhaps many of us as adults have not developed those skills yet either.) Limiting screen-time to 2 hours per day keeps a teen in the area NOT associated with an increase in depressive symptoms or suicidal behaviors. This may involve teaching our teens to limit time spent on social media, turn off alerts, not spend down-time watching videos, limit video game time, and check social media less often. (For more, consider The Burden of a Smartphone.)
Model limited use of electronic devices. We can’t expect our teens to use their devices less when they see us, their parents, wrapped up in our phones and devices. I thought I would never use electronic devices for 3 hours in a day. Surely, I was in the “safe zone.” Then Apple put “Screen Time” in the phone settings and my time usage started popping up. I discovered that I can easily average 3-4 hours per day on my smartphone! Clearly, I have to learn how to limit my time on the phone in order to model a healthy use of electronic devices to the children in my life. Do you?
Encourage non-screen activities like sports, outdoor play and exercise, face-to-face interactions, church, non-screen hobbies, and family games. Teach your teens to have fun without screens. Let them learn by experience that face-to-face interactions are more enjoyable than social media, “real-life games” are more enjoyable than “virtual games,” and hands-on hobbies more enjoyable than screen-time games.
Take a vacation from electronic devices. A study from UCLA noted that after only 5 days of a “device-free outdoor camp,” children performed better on tests for empathy than did a control group. Another study showed that a month without Facebook led to greater happiness. Take a vacation. Do it as a family and invest time previously spent on devices engaging in “real-time” interaction with one another and “real-life” experiences. (For more ideas, check out Don’t Let Them Take Over.)
We all have work to do in balancing
our lives in a world where electronic devices impinge more and more on our
daily lives. But the work we do to limit electronic devices in our lives and
the lives our family members,’ could save a life…maybe even the life of your teen!
I have bad news. Teen suicide rates are on the rise. In fact, suicide rates for teen girls hit a 40-year high in 2017 (Suicide Rate for Teen Girls Hits 40 Year High). Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens 12- to 19-years-old in 2006 (CDC: Mortality Among Teens Age 12-19 Years Old) and the second leading cause of death for those 10- to 24-years-old in 2015 (National Vital Statistics Report-see page 10 for figure). Many times depression or other mood disorders can be involved (Teen Suicide Statistics). Overall, this is devastating information. Our young people are crying out in need of something. But what do they need? A study presented at the 2017 American Public Health Association conference gives us a hint and tells us how we might stem the rising tide of teen suicide. They presented three conclusions from a 2012 US national Study of Parental Behaviors and Suicidal Feelings Among Adolescents that can cut suicide risk by up to 7 times (These Parenting Behaviours Cut Suicide Risk 7 Times).
Tell your children and teens you are proud of them. Adolescents were five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, seven times more likely to have a suicidal plan, and seven times more likely to attempt suicide when their parents rarely or never expressed pride in them. Adolescents need to know we take pride in their actions and their efforts. They need to know we take pride in them!
Tell your children they have done a good job. This simple action was associated with a similar level of suicidal risk noted above. When we acknowledge a job well done we communicate our teen’s value. We inform them that we notice their and appreciate their work. We express the importance of their place and work in our home and world. We acknowledge their power to do things and the importance of that power in our lives.
Help your children with their homework. Once again, helping with homework was associated with a similar level of suicidal risk noted in bullet #1. Helping our children and teens with homework communicates love. It lets them know we are interested in their world and committed to their growth. It gives us the opportunity to learn and grow with them, sharing in tasks together. It expresses how much we love them…enough to help them in the work of their daily world.
Once again, these three simple actions significantly reduce the risk of suicide in teens. Unfortunately, many teens do not receive these simple blessings from their parents. Make sure your teen does.
I would add two other important actions we can take to protect our teens from suicide.
Get to know your teen. Learn about their world of friends and activities. Observe their moods and behaviors. If you see some change in their mood, if they appear depressed or isolated, seek help. Many teens who commit suicide have some type of mood disorder or change in peer relationships (Teen Suicide Statistics). Know you teen well enough to recognize the signs…and get help if they need it.
Limit the use of electronic devices and encourage face-to-face interactions. In recent studies, Jean Twenge and colleagues identified that teens who spend five or more hours per day on devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. (The Risk of Teen Depression and Suicide is Linked to Smartphone Use) At the same time, getting rid of all devices did not help. Instead, the option resulting in the best mental health limited time on devices while encouraging face-to-face interactions. (Read Just So You Know: Screen Time & Teen Happiness for more on this.)
Overall, these five actions are not hard. They do take time. They mean investing in the lives of our youth. And that’s a great investment…after all they are amazing people with exciting futures who will build the tomorrow in which you and I grow!