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HELP FIGHT THE STIGMA

© 2019 by Paula Fontenelle

A Growing Concern

 

Youth suicide affects thousands of families worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016, suicide was the second-leading cause of death within the 15-29 age group, losing only to road injury. In many countries, the rates have been growing, both for boys and girls. In the United States, from 1999 to 2017, the female rate almost doubled, jumping from 3.0 per 100,000 to 5.8 within the 15-24 age range. For males, in that age range, it went from 16.8 to 22.7. 

 

The US has also seen a specific alarming growth in the suicide rate among African American children ages 5 to 11 years old. From 1993 to 2017, it has jumped from being the 14th to the10th leading cause of death within this population, and nearly twice the rate of their white counterparts.

by Noorulabdeen Ahmad

As with adults, many factors can lead to youth suicide. One of them has to do with the natural changes that take place during adolescence. During this phase, when they are forming their own identities, boys and girls experience increasing responsibilities, peer pressure, mood swings, and heightened emotions. They are also more vulnerable to mental health problems, which are often linked with self-inflicted death. 

Brain development has a significant impact on teen behavior. Until the mid-twenties, the midbrain, where emotions are processed, is well developed, but the connections of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for reasoning, are still is 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. 

 

Social media

 

The correlation between mental health and screen time has been the subject of an increasing number of recent studies, and the results paint a somber picture. In the United Kingdom, a study published by the Royal Society for Public Health found that 91 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds use the internet for social networking, which is linked with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and poor sleep.

In the United States, the statistics are equally disquieting. A 2017 study with 506,820 youngsters between the ages of 13 and 18 found that adolescents who engage in more screen time have a significantly higher likelihood to experience depressive symptoms or have at least one suicide-related outcome. There is a direct correlation between time spent online and suicidal outcomes. Adolescents using electronic devices for three or more hours every day have a 34-percent more chance of having at least one suicide-related outcome compare to those using devices for two or fewer hours a day.

When visiting social media sites every day, these teenagers were 13 percent more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those who visited less often. This is not to say that social media is necessarily bad. The benefits for the youth are many - It enables them to improve communication skills, broaden their social network, and develop new interests, but there needs to be a balance so that online interactions do not replace real-life relationships and activities.

Suicide in Colleges

 

The increased concern about suicide is colleges is well-founded. In the US, it is the leading cause of death among college and university students. One of the reasons for that is that mental health issues often manifest between the ages of 18 and 24, which places these institutions in a unique setting for prevention. Within the last few years, several initiatives have been created to support students, but they are still scarce and lacking integration. There are still no national registries or databases available, which makes it difficult to comprehend the scope of the problem, much less put together a unified action plan.

The 2018 report published by the American College Health Association (ACHA) gives us a quick snapshot of the struggle experienced by this population. One of the sections asked respondents to mention the main medical problems they experienced within the previous 12 months. Psychiatric conditions were cited by 9.2 percent of them, not including Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, which was mentioned by an additional 7.8 percent. 

The survey asked 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 Suicide Prevention and Resource Center (SPRC) compiled several databases regarding rates of suicidal thoughts and attempt among undergraduate and graduate students in the US, in 2012.

College suicide in the US

The American National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2017, revealed that among the 18-25 population, 10.5 percent had thoughts about suicide, with 1.9 percent actually attempting to end their lives.

Research across the US often results in similarly alarming data. An American study published in 2018, with 67,000 college students from more than 100 institutions, found that one-fifth of the respondents had thought about suicide, 9 percent had attempted and almost 20 percent had reported self-injury in their lifetime.

 

No matter what source you look at, the numbers show that there is a significant portion of youngsters who need professional care and support from their family, peers, and the institutions they are affiliated with, so knowing how to approach this population can make a difference in the manner in which they will respond. Below are some tips gathered from books and other credible sources that deal with this issue.

Watch For 

 

  • Academic problems: lack of interest, a sudden drop in grades, skipping class, difficulty concentrating, and aggression towards teachers and student peers.

  • Behavioral changes: withdrawal, disregard for personal appearance, substance use (or increase in it), mood swings, risk-taking activities, self-harm/self-mutilation (primarily cutting), and eating patterns.

  • Speech: talk of death and related themes, such as pain, suicide, and despair.

 

What Helps

  • Relationships are undoubtedly the most helpful asset. Building a community is key. Stay close, offer non-judgmental help, and as much as possible (with consent), involve family, friends, teachers, faculty, or staff. 

  • Healthy habits: adequate sleep, diet, physical exercise, health care, and counseling. Most colleges and schools offer mental health services.

  • If you are a parent, stay involved in their academic life. For kids who are still in school, attend events that are relevant to them, such as dance performances and sports matches. If academic problems arise, talk to teachers and faculty. If they are in college, which many times means that they are out of state, connect with them by calling, texting, and video. 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). Most importantly, listen. Many times, what they need is to be heard, not necessarily to receive advice. Kids usually make it clear when they want your objective guidance. A good approach is to mention similar problems that you 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. Internet is not a problem in and of itself - much to the contrary, it is essential for their academic and social development. Using too much of it or substituting human contact with social media, however, is what raises concern.

Online Resources:

For a more comprehensive list of resources, go to my Resources page. There, you will find materials for schools and teachers as well.

  1. Preventing suicide: The role of high school mental health providers - CLICK HERE

  2. Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide - CLICK HERE

  3. Youth Suicide Prevention School-based Guide - CLICK HERE

  4. The Trevor Project - CLICK HERE

  5. Preventing suicide: A toolkit for high schools (SAMHSA) - CLICK HERE

  6. CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System - CLICK HERE

  7. Virtual Learning Lab: Campus Suicide Prevention - CLICK HERE

  8. Suicide Prevention Among LGBTQ Youth - CLICK HERE

  9. Culturally Competent Care for LGBTQ Youth (video) - CLICK HERE

  10. Family Acceptance Project (focused on LGBTQ) - CLICK HERE

  11. Crisis Text Line (for teens) - CLICK HERE

  12. Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide - CLICK HERE

  13. Your Life Your Voice from Boys Town Hotline - CLICK HERE

Sources cited on this page:

1.American study with 67,000 college students: CLICK HERE

2.The Royal Society for Public Health study: CLICK HERE

3. The American College Health Association, ACHA report on social media: CLICK HERE