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  • Writer's picturePaula Fontenelle

Why do kids take their own lives?

Among 10-14 year-olds, the US Suicide rates nearly tripled in ten years. What are the warning signs and how to approach this population

For most of us, the idea of a young child taking their own life is unthinkable, but unfortunately, from 2000 to 2017, this was the reality for more than five thousand families in the United States (5,527 deaths). And this is only for children within the 10-14 age group alone. If we look at the 10-24 year-olds, the numbers reach the alarming sum of 88,744 people. For this population, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

It gets worse. Since 2010, the suicide rates for the 10-14 age group practically tripled, so the natural question to ask ourselves as a society is why? What is leading these kids to such high levels of hopelessness that they see no solution for their pain?

There is no easy answer, and certainly, no one-size-fits-all, but some factors play a part:

1. Family dynamics - Researcher Johan Bilsen argues that approximately 50 percent of youth suicide is related to family factors, including communication patterns, neglect, violence, substance abuse, and history of mental disorders. Genetics may also play a role. Twin studies have shown a higher risk for those with a biological family history of suicide, even in kids who were adopted, which signals the impact of genetics. The association with parental divorce is weak and might be more closely related to the life changes provoked by it, such as financial difficulties, relational factors, and the implications of living in a single-parent family.

2. Young people are more vulnerable to mental health problems, particularly in adolescence, when they go through changes as they search for their own identity. Mood swings and heightened emotions are normal traits of adolescence. These are part of the individual’s search for self, as well as a natural response to increased responsibilities.

3. Brain development also plays a significant part in behavior during this phase. In the teenage years, the midbrain, where emotions are processed, is well-developed, while the formation of the connections of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for reasoning, are still underway. It is this area that allows us to plan, moderate social behavior, prioritize, and think logically. As a result, adolescents are prone to misinterpret social cues, act on impulse, and engage in risky behavior. This is where suicidal ideation may come into play.

Social media

The correlation between mental health and screen time has been the subject of an increasing number of recent studies. Establishing connections online is not necessarily negative. Quite the contrary—the benefits for the youth are many. It enables them to improve communication skills, to broaden their social network, and to develop new interests. The problems arise when the online environment substitutes for real-life relationships and activities when it highjacks a person’s capacity to look outside their screens and find joy elsewhere.

One of the aspects that can increase anxiety is the new concept of ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FoMO), which consists of the worry that if you are not connected, you will be missing out on joyful activities as they happen. This leads to the constant need to recheck messages and posts online. FoMO is linked with lower mood and life satisfaction.

In the United States, a 2017 study conducted with 506,820 youngsters between the ages of 13-18 found that adolescents who spent more screen time had a significantly higher likelihood to experience depressive symptoms or have at least one suicide-related outcome.

Finding a balance between life on and off the screen is crucial. The study found that adolescents using electronic devices three or more hours daily had 34-percent more chance of having at least one suicide-related outcome than those using devices two or fewer hours a day. When visiting social media sites every day, teenagers were 13 percent more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those who used them less often.

One of the factors that contribute to depression is the many popularity measures created by Facebook, which may lead to feelings of inadequacy when a young person sees their ‘friend’ having a good time. The researchers observe, however, that this is not true for all users. If well-adjusted, the effect may be the opposite: a boost in the adolescent’s positive feelings about themselves.

College students

In its 2018 Student Health Assessment, the American College Health Association asked 88,178 students to identify which factors had negatively affected their academic performance. Stress was placed at the top of the list with 33.2 percent, followed by anxiety (26.5 percent), sleep difficulties (21.8 percent), and depression (18.7 percent), all of which have a direct impact on mental health. Many do not seek help.

The data shows a concerning number of youngsters who need professional attention and support from their family and peers, but most people feel that they wouldn’t be equipped to take action. Knowing how to approach this population can make a difference in the manner in which they will respond, so I have gathered here some tips on how to address young adults.

Watch for

Academic problems: lack of interest, a sudden drop in grades, skipping class, difficulty concentrating, and aggression toward teachers and student peers. Behavioral changes: withdrawal, disregard for personal appearance, substance use (or increase of it), mood swings, risk-taking activities, self-harm/self-mutilation (mainly cutting), and eating changes. Speech: discussion of death and related themes, such as pain, suicide, and despair.


Relationships are the most important asset. Stay close, offer non-judgmental help, and as much as possible (with consent), involve family, friends, teachers, faculty, or staff. Build an empathic community.

Healthy habits: adequate sleep, diet, physical exercise, health care, and counseling. Most colleges have mental health services for their students.

Parents, stay involved in their academic lives: If you have kids who are still in school, attend events that are relevant to them, such as dance performances and sports matches. If there are academic problems, talk to teachers and faculty. When in college, which many times means that they are out of state, connect with them by calling, texting, and video chatting. What they need to know is that you care. This is particularly important for freshmen because they are going through many adaptations, so they need to feel that family support is still there. When talking to your kid, avoid “right or wrong” comments. Ask open-ended questions (those that are not answered by a simple yes or no). This helps them open up to you.

Listen, listen, listen. Many times, what they need is to be heard, not necessarily to be given specific advice. Kids usually make it clear when they want your objective guidance. A good approach is to relate their problems to similar ones that you have had in the past. This is less intrusive than saying things like, “I think you should” Give them space to figure out what is best for them.

Whenever possible, and this depends on consent and your kid’s age, monitor their online activities. Set time limits. Using the internet is not a problem per se—much to the contrary, it is essential for their academic and social development. Using too much of it or substituting human contact by social media, however, is what raises concern.

Remember, sometimes children or adolescents who are thinking about suicide won’t tell you because they are worried about how you will react. Your direct, non-judgmental questions can encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Regardless of their response, if you suspect that the person may be suicidal, get them help immediately.

Warning signs

Watch closely if they:

Stopped enjoying activities they once loved

No longer attend classes or social outings

Are experiencing extreme anger or sadness over a relationship in their life

React negatively or with apathy to most things

Often talk about death or suicide

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