Teen Suicide: Risks and Realities

Article at a Glance

  • Teen suicide is far more common than most of us realize.
  • The kids at risk are not all – or even mostly – mentally ill.
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah tweens and teens.

Teen suicide isn’t a fun topic of conversation, but it’s an important one. Many parents are shocked into awareness when their child’s friend or classmate dies by suicide. But teen and tween suicides are more common than many of us realize. Utah is among a handful of states leading the nation in the rapid growth of suicide rates. In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death here for kids 11 to 17.

That’s a shocking fact to digest. The biggest threat isn’t car accidents, school shootings, illnesses, drug overdoses, or any of the myriad things parents worry will befall their children—it’s suicide.

In the last two decades, Utah’s suicide rate has risen over 30%.

Nationally, the problem is also alarming. In 2018, the Surgeon General’s office reported that overall life expectancy was declining – in part because of the rise in deaths from suicide.

The Silver Lining of Rising Suicide Rates

While suicide has historically been stigmatized and led to the victim’s family feeling isolated in their grief, new research and understanding have helped bring suicide and its prevention into the mainstream. As a result, we are becoming better equipped than ever to identify the warning signs and to intervene before it’s too late.

What Puts a Teen at Higher Risk of Suicide?

Increasingly, research is finding that it isn’t one, but an interplay of factors the precipitates suicide:

Mental Illness: Commonly accepted wisdom used to be that suicide victims were just mentally ill. While mental illness—especially depression and bipolar disorder­—are significant risk factors, new data shows that less than half of those who die by suicide have a diagnosed mental illness.  That isn’t to say less than half have a mental illness, but many have unrecognized or untreated conditions.

Substance Abuse:  Illicit drugs, alcohol, and prescription abuse are not known for accentuating our health—and this goes double for kids and teens. When substance abuse is combined other factors, suicide risk grows.

The Teen Experience: Social pressures, family pressures, rapid physical changes, growing sexual awareness, and the increasing isolation of our modern digital lifestyle are all parts of what it means to be a teen today. On top that, the area of their brain (frontal cortex) in charge of reasoning, regulating moods, and planning doesn’t fully develop until their early 20s.

Abuse: Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are a natural result of physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, and neglect. Unfortunately, abuse is often hidden by both victim and perpetrator, making it a difficult risk factor to spot.

Changing Life Circumstances: Even adults struggle with things like divorce, moving, bullying, death, a breakup, family problems, sexual confusion, legal trouble, money problems, loneliness, or academic pressure.  But consider these problems from a youth’s perspective. Issues like these can seem insurmountable to someone without a well-developed set of coping skills or the big-picture perspective that experience brings.

Opportunity: Studies have found that the risk of suicide increases by 400% to 1000% when there is a firearm in the house. Guns are the most common tool of suicide, and the deadliest. Access to other lethal substances like prescription medications is also a risk factor.

Geography: Utah lies in a “suicide belt”—a band of states in the west with higher suicide rates. For years, researchers have proposed many theories for this, as wide-ranging as high elevation, isolationism, high gun ownership, and local culture.

This is all interesting, you may think. But how do I know if my child is contemplating suicide? What does suicide risk look like on a *personal* level?

For more on recognizing the signs of suicide, check out the second in our teen suicide series: Recognizing the Warning Signs.

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