It seems today there is no community that has not been rocked by the tragic suicide of one of its young people. My own town is no exception. My middle class town in New Jersey was shocked to learn that a sophomore girl in our highly acclaimed high school had taken her grandfather’s gun and walked into the woods behind her house to shoot herself in the head. The question on everyone’s lips – Why? Why would a young girl do such a thing? And how can we make sure we don’t lose another child?
It’s a question more and more communities are asking as the rate of suicide among teens has soared to horrifying heights in the past few years, leaving behind grief-stricken families and friends and neighbors, all wanting to know why. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found the number of kids and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled in the U.S. from 2008-2015.
Social researchers have sought out why the numbers are increasing and their research has all pointed to particular causes, which can help give parents the information to act on and potentially save their child’s life.
*Limit screen time. As Dr. Gregory Plemmons, an associate professor of pediatrics with the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, told CBS News, “there are increasing rates of anxiety and depression in youth and young adults. Some have theorized social media is playing a role.”
It is a dark irony that for all the use of “social media” we are increasingly disconnected from one another. The Pew Research Center recently looked at the numbers of smartphone ownership among teens and found that when it crossed the 50% threshold in late 2012 was exactly when rates of teen depression and suicide increased. In 2015, 73% of teens had access to a smartphone. And just as the rates of cell phone ownership rose, so too did rates of depression. But owning a smartphone is only part of the problem, how much time a teen spends on that phone greatly correlates to the levels of depression reported by teens. The Pew study found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent only one hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.
*Get more time face-to-face with others. We’ve all seen it – a group of young people at a restaurant or café, sitting at a table together but not speaking a word since they all have their faces in their phones. It has to stop. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. Teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).
Even more disturbing, some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental-health issues may have slipped into depression because of too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.
*Get enough sleep. There was conclusive evidence that more teens feel depressed and attempt to hurt themselves while school is in session. The average teen today participates in many after-school sports and clubs, all to make that college application better, add to that the hours of homework and it all may pack just too much into the average teenager’s day. Teens should have a little more than 9 hours of sleep a night. Most teens get 7 hours. The connection between exhaustion and depression has been conclusively proven time and again.
Suicide is now the third leading cause of death among American adolescents, experts pointed out at a May 2017 conference for the Pediatric Societies Meeting. But the Centers for Disease Control reports it is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10-24.
But we need to understand that it’s not all bad news. Information is power. Parents who know what warning signs to look for are in a better position to help their children. Typically, there are warnings signs to look for:
*Talking about wanting to die or hurt him or herself.
*Withdrawing from family and friends
*Sleeping too much or too little
*Extreme mood swings, from rage to despair