The rate at which young Americans took their own lives reached a high-water mark in 2017, driven by a sharp rise in suicides among older teenage boys, according to new research.
In that year alone, suicide claimed the lives of 5,016 males and 1,225 females between 15 and 24 in the United States, researchers reported Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.
While reporting standards for suicide have changed over the decades, the authors of the JAMA study said the youth suicide rate — 14.6 per 100,000 — appears to be the highest it’s been since the government began collecting such statistics in 1960.
For girls and young women, suicide rates have mostly followed a steady upward trajectory since 2000, roughly doubling between then and 2017.
The grim escalation of self-destruction has followed a slightly different path for boys and young men. Their suicide rate saw modest, steady increases for just over a decade beginning in 2000. Then it turned up sharply starting three to four years ago, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
By 2017, young men between 15 and 19 killed themselves at a rate of 17.9 per 100,000, up from 13 per 100,000 in 2000. Not since 1980 — when the HIV/AIDS epidemic touched off widespread despair among young gay males across the United States — has the suicide rate for this group been so high (it was 18 per 100,000 that year).
The increase among older teen boys raised the overall suicide rate for Americans ages 15 to 24 to its highest level since 1960, said Harvard University’s Oren Miron, the lead author of the new research.
Suicide rates have been rising among men and women across the age spectrum in the United States. In November, the CDC reported that an average American’s likelihood of dying by suicide at any given age rose 33% between 1999 and 2017.
Miron and his colleagues suggest a litany of factors that have contributed to the increase in reported youth suicides, including high rates of depression and anxiety, unprecedented levels of social media use, and a greater willingness of families and officials to acknowledge suicide as a cause of death.
But Miron, a bioinformatics specialist, said “there are a lot of reasons to suspect” that the opioid crisis has played a role too.
Fueling that suspicion is the fact that coroners and medical examiners often find themselves puzzling over poisoning deaths in which the individual’s intent was unclear. But Miron said that even when a young person’s suicide is carried out with a firearm or by asphyxiation, it is often set against the despair of a community wracked by the opioid epidemic.
“When you have that hopelessness all around you and when it afflicts the family, it can definitely be a factor,” he said. “The increased risk for heroin or opioid users to commit suicide is really staggering.”
The CDC has noted that in 2017, suicide rates in the country’s most rural counties were 80% higher than they were in large metropolitan counties. While the evolving epidemic of opioid addiction and death has begun to infect the nation’s cities, it first took root in rural, largely white populations.
Across the country, rising rates of suicide, fatal drug overdoses and deaths due to alcohol abuse have collectively driven up the average American’s probability of dying at any age. In recent years, these so-called “deaths of despair” have also reduced the average life expectancy of Americans.
Suicide is now thought to be the second leading cause of death for Americans between 10 and 34.
“I don’t think it is an exaggeration at all to say that we have a mental health crisis among adolescents in the U.S.,” said San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, whose research focuses on generational differences in emotional well-being.
Twenge noted that by many measures, teens and young adults have become more depressed over the past decade and suffered higher levels of psychological distress than their predecessors. Research has failed to root out the causes for this distress, she acknowledged. But there’s evidence to suggest that this generation’s unique relationship to digital technology is a key factor, she said.
Youth suicide trends do not align well with economic explanations or with public traumas like school shootings or terrorist attacks, Twenge has shown. But as smartphones and social media use have become ubiquitous, there’s been a fundamental shift in the way teens spend their leisure time. Activities that benefit mental health — including sleep and face-to-face interaction with family and friends — have declined as American youths have deepened their engagement with digital media.
“I do not think that is a coincidence,” Twenge said.
Clinical psychologist Lisa Damour, who specializes in treating adolescents and young adults, said the grim new statistics cannot be separated from rising rates of depression and anxiety in young Americans.
It’s a reminder, she said, that “depression is a treatable condition, and it needs to be treated.” Parents, teachers and peers should be particularly attentive to the distress of teens and young adults who are socially isolated, who don’t get enough sleep (often because their digital lives interfere) and who are stressed by the world’s problems, she said.
It’s important to remember that depression is a chronic condition which, in teens particularly, is often marked by passing episodes of sadness, crankiness and irritability, Damour added. While parents might readily dismiss a teen’s mercurial moods as normal, it’s never wrong to press.
“Asking kids if they feel down or suicidal will not cause them to be down or suicidal,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask.”
Health officials urge people with suicidal thoughts to seek help by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or to use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741 for immediate assistance.