Suicides and homicides are on the rise among children, teens and young adults in America, according to a new report that highlights what experts say is a disturbing trend among the young.
The report, published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that from 2007 to 2017, the rate of Americans ages 10 to 24 who died by suicide rose by 58 percent, from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 persons to 10.6. That rate had held steady during the seven years prior, from 2000 to 2007.
And rates of homicides in the same age group, which had been declining from 2007 to 2014, increased by 18 percent over the next three years, from 6.7 deaths per 100,000 persons to 7.9.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 24 in 2017, according to the report. And homicide ranked third for those ages 15 to 24 that same year.
The new statistics highlight “a continuing public health issue, since these are among the leading causes of death among those aged 10 to 24,” said the report’s lead author, Sally Curtin, a statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Until 2009, the homicide rate among young people was higher than the suicide rate. But the suicide rate has outpaced the homicide rate since 2011, Curtin and her colleagues reported.
Particularly striking was the increase in the rate of suicide among 10- to 14-year-olds. Kids in this age group “have the lowest rates, but they’ve almost tripled between 2007 and 2017,” Curtin said. “At the same time, homicide rates declined” in that age group. Rates of suicide rose from 0.9 deaths per 100,000 persons in 2007 to 2.5 deaths per 100,000 in 2017.
No one knows exactly why the suicide rates are rising among the young. But experts have theories. Chief among them is the heavy use of social media among children, teens and young adults.
Dr. Igor Galynker believes social media plays an important role, especially for girls. “It’s known that girls are bullied online more than boys,” said Galynker, a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine and director of the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Suicide Research Laboratory in New York City.
What’s more, studies have shown that the amount of screen time “is associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation,” Galynker said.
Bullying isn’t the only destructive factor, said Caroline Oppenheimer, a suicide researcher and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We know that the teenage brain is very sensitive to peer feedback and social valuation and now with social media you can check your social status 24/7: how many followers you have, how many comments your post has gotten and how many likes,” Oppenheimer said. “We know both girls and boys are heavily invested in monitoring social media. They get distressed when they don’t get a lot of likes or positive feedback.”
Not all teens are harmed by negative feedback on social media, Oppenheimer said: “It’s the vulnerable ones who are very sensitive to social evaluation.”
Galynker also stressed that for boys, though social media may also have a deleterious impact, the biggest factor for them “is access to guns.”
“There are frightening stats showing that death by guns in boys has dramatically increased, particularly among those in lower income” brackets, he said.
A silent epidemic
The increasing rates of suicide and homicide — referred to as violent deaths — among young Americans “represents a silent epidemic that’s been going on for more than 10 years in the U.S. and which has been gaining force,” said Dr. Albert Wu, an internist and professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Suicide is an enormous problem hiding in plain sight, perhaps in part, because we are reluctant as a society to talk about it,” said Wu, who also faults a health care system that prioritizes physical health over mental health.
The new report “should make us reconsider that balance,” he said. “We should at least provide parity for mental health.”
People also need to change the way they look at suicides and homicides, said Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, director of the University of Michigan Injury Prevention Center.
“These are not just random acts, one-offs of violence, that happen here and there,” Cunningham said. “They are a preventable health problem that can be addressed by a comprehensive public health approach that includes decreasing access to the most lethal means to those most at risk.”
Many have a misperception when it comes to homicides, Cunningham said. “People tend to think of homicide as murder on the street, but a lot of homicides are partner violence. So, programs and methods to decrease partner violence can help.”
In the end, Galynker and other experts agreed, the most important thing people can do is to learn the warning signs that suggest someone might be in danger of killing themselves. Warning signs can be vague, but most people who die by suicide do show one or more, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. One of the factors to look out for is changes in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.