SUICIDE is not a 21st century problem, but it has been increasing in recent years. As of 2019, suicide is a top 10 cause of death in the United States and has become an outright epidemic among teens and young adults where it has become the second leading cause of death for those aged 10–34 (NIMH, 2019). The data for 2020 has not yet been released, but I imagine that the rates of suicide, particularly among teens and children, have increased significantly during COVID-19 lockdowns.
It is not a hyperbolic statement to say that the increase in teen suicide rates is a crisis. Though suicide rates in the U.S. have been slowly rising since the 1990s, there was a sudden spike that occurred around 2009 and many experts expect another spike this last year – especially with schools out of session in many states.
The suicide rate for boys has risen 34% since 2009, and the rate for girls has nearly doubled as it increased by over 80% in the last decade. Males have historically been at greater risk for suicide, but that gap has been closing.
Root Causes for Increased Teen Suicide
Sociologist Emile Durkeim wrote the book, On Suicide back in 1897, and his findings are still taught in universities today. He argued that suicide was a social problem, not a psychological one. Social situations can act on the psychology of an individual driving them to self-harm, but psychological factors alone are not explanatory. Two of his primary types of suicide include anomie and egoism.
Anomie occurs when there is a lack of moral regulation. During times of massive social upheaval or a shift in social norms, the weight of dealing with these new social cues can make a person unbalanced. The economic recession of 2008 would be a great example of this type of suicide, but that might not be the best explanation for why children are taking their own lives.
Egoism is a loss of social connection. This typically occurs through some sort of social isolation like losing a loved one or moving to a new location. Children who are bullied at school and/or neglected at home suffer from this type of isolation. This pattern is also typical of mass school shooters.
The role of technology (Haidt & Paresky, 2019) is vital to understanding how social isolation affects our children and teenagers. Constantly staring at screens, rather than human beings, results in difficulty navigating through beneficial social interactions and limits the ability of children to make friends or even read facial cues.
If the recession of 2008 is not sufficiently explanatory, what other event can be traced to the timeframe? Haidt and Paresky (2019) identify that 2007 was the year that social media became accessible to us 24/7 when the iPhone was released. They attribute the rise of teen suicide, especially the astronomical spike in girls, to the cyber bullying that occurs on social media and the inability of American youths to unplug.
There is a very strong correlation between increasing technological advancement and social media with social isolation that leads to suicide.
What Can We Do?
Haidt and Paresky (2019) suggest that we allow our children to go outside without constant supervision. Children are statistically safer now than we were as kids, yet Generation Xers often believe the exact opposite. This type of parenting, often referred to as “helicopter parenting,” limits a child’s exposure to positive peers and encourages them to isolate with videogames and smart phones instead.
As parents, we can also put boundaries on the use of technology for our children. Monitoring and limiting their use of social media might be a lifesaving, though intrusive, method of curbing the dangers of technology. Perhaps we should consider not allowing children access to social media accounts at all, despite the pressure put on them by peers.
We can be there for our kids. Supportive, but not overbearing; we can raise strong, independent children that no longer fear taking small risks by going to a park with friends or walking to the corner store to purchase snacks. If social isolation is harming our children, we should actively work to discourage it. Their very lives depend on our awareness and honesty. Talk with your kids. Encourage your kids. Teach and trust your kids. Most of all, be present and available for them.
Most importantly, find a good, Biblical church to attend. True Christians (there are many “Christians” who claim to be, but do not live like they are) hold each other accountable and lift each other up in Christ. They support one another spiritually, financially, and socially. A Biblical church emphasized fellowship and reject reliance on technology – both of which are helpful in reducing youth suicide.
If you or someone you know needs assistance, I would suggest contacting your pastor first and foremost. A viable alternative is to contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273–8255.
Durkheim, E. (1897/2006). On suicide. Translated by Robin Buss. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Haidt, J. & Paresky, P. (2019). By mollycoddling our children, we’re fueling mental illness in teenagers. The Guardian, Jan 10.
NIMH. (2019). Suicide. National Institute of Mental Health.