Youth suicide is a quiet secret that takes the lives of over 2,000 of America's youth each year. How pervasive is the problem of youth suicide? Here's a brief review of what national data* tells us:
It is the third leading cause of death for teens (after accidents and homicides)
It is the second leading cause of death among college students
For every death by suicide, there are between 50 and 200 attempts
According to the 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 6.9 percent of students in grades nine through twelve reported an attempt in past year; and 14.5 percent of high school students report having thoughts about suicide
Attempts and suicide death rate are increasing for 10- to 14-year-olds
* American Association of Suicidology, www.suicidology.org, 2009.
But sometimes these percentages and survey results can simply seem like numbers and not communicate the reality of youth suicide to us in a personal way. So consider these numbers instead:
Every year, there are approximately ten youth suicides for every 100,000 youth.
Every day, there are approximately eleven youth suicides.
Every two hours and eleven minutes, a person under the age of twenty-five dies by suicide
The other part of the story - for which there really are no numbers - is the terrible impact on the family members and close friends of the deceased. That devastation is immeasurable.
Questions and Answers
There are many questions surrounding youth suicide. Below are some commonly asked questions that help to separate fact from fiction:
Q. Are school programs that discuss suicide safe?
A: Since the 1980s, when school programs for suicide prevention were first put into place in more systematic ways, there has been a lot of confusion about this topic.
Evaluation research done at that time pointed out the dangers of talking about suicide in the classroom in ways that glamorized or sensationalized the topic or made it seem like a normal solution to life problems and stresses. Some people misinterpreted that to mean that all school-based programs that address suicide were potentially dangerous.
What we have since learned according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that students can, in fact, benefit from programs that present suicide in a factual way.
Q. Will talking about suicide give people the idea to do it? Could we do more harm than good?
A: Talking about suicide does not cause suicide to occur. In fact, it can be an excellent prevention tool. People who are not suicidal reject the idea, while people who may be thinking about it usually welcome the chance to talk about it. Often they are relieved because they feel that someone else recognizes their pain.
Talking breaks the secrecy that surrounds suicidal behavior, and lets people know that help is available. By not talking about suicide, we increase the isolation and despair of individuals thinking about it.
Q: Doesn't suicide happen mostly in troubled individuals who come from difficult family situations?
A: NO. It is really important to understand that suicidal behavior occurs in all socioeconomic groups. People of all ages, races, faiths, and cultures die by suicide, as do individuals from all walks of life and all income levels.
Popular, well-connected people who seem to have everything going for them and those who are less well off both die by suicide. Suicidal youth come from all kinds of families, rich and poor, happy and sad, two-parent and single-parent.
To suggest that suicidal youth come only from "bad," "sick," or "neglectful" families is like saying that only these kids get cancer. Historically, our culture has blamed the families of people who die by suicide and this behavior must stop. Suicide can happen in any family. We all must work together to identify and prevent suicidal behavior.
Q: Don't most suicides happen without any warning signs?
A: There are almost always warning signs, but unless we know what they are, they can be very difficult to recognize. That is why suicide prevention education is so important. Research has demonstrated that in over 80 percent of deaths by suicide, a warning sign or signs were given. See also: Risk Factors and Warning Signs
Q: Are people who talk about or attempt suicide just trying to get attention?
A: People who talk about or attempt suicide need immediate attention. They are trying to call attention to their extreme emotional pain. Many believe that we should ignore these "cries for help" and "attention-seeking behaviors" because the attention will only encourage the behaviors. Suicidal individuals are trying to get attention the same way people shout if they are drowning, or are injured.
Q: Is suicide preventable?
A: Yes, suicide may often be prevented. Many people believe that if someone is suicidal, there is nothing that anyone can do to stop them from killing themselves. Some also believe that those who don't kill themselves on the first attempt will keep trying until they die.
The truth is that most young people face a suicidal crisis only once in a lifetime. A suicidal crisis is usually very brief, lasting from a few hours to a few days. With intervention and help, future attempts may be prevented. Experience and wisdom are gained in solving problems in other ways. While suicide is not always prevented, suicide prevention is ALWAYS worth trying.
Q: Are gay and lesbian youth at high risk for suicide?
A: Research studies vary greatly in their estimates of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (GLBTQ) youth who die by suicide. Recent analyses of research indicates that even though adolescents who report same-sex romantic attractions or relationships are at 2 to 3 times the risk for suicide attempts, the overwhelming majority of these youth report no suicidality at all.
The risk factors of discrimination, victimization, bullying, and so forth, whether gay or straight, no matter what race or ethnicity, are important to consider in suicide prevention. Further research needs to be done on the risk factors as well as the unique strengths that characterize the lives of sexual minority adolescents and young adults. See also: Bullying & Sexual Orientation