Teen suicide doubles; How parents can help

November 27, 2017

Teen behavior tricky, especially today: 

When parents think that teenagers spending time alone in their bedrooms all day is part of the normal ritualistic phase of adolescence, perhaps they need to think again.

Teenagers are complex beings. We all know that. We were teenagers once ourselves. For many of us, however, our teenage years were a solid 30 or more years ago, and we probably have forgotten some of the angst and uncertainty of that time in our lives.

 From the parents’ vantage point, how do they know the difference between a moody teenager and depressed one, a teen isolating him or herself and struggling with social anxiety and one who simply wants to be left alone to play around on his or her smartphone or  fight off a ghoul in the latest zombie game?  In other words, what’s normal teenage behavior and what’s concerning?

Worse still, certain teen behaviors left unchecked can lead to suicide. Such was the focus of a team of researchers who recently discovered that teen suicide and self-harm more than doubled from 2007 to 2017. The Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital study, examining data from 32 hospitals across the U.S., revealed that most adolescents who attempted suicide were between 15-17 years old, and most suicide attempts occur during March through May each year.

 In Rhode Island., teen suicide ranks eighth in the nation with 10.5 percent of the teens attempting suicide compared to the national 8.6 percent average, according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control report. Also the percent of teens who attempted suicide that resulted in injury is about twice as high in R. I. at 4.1 percent compared to the national average of 2.8 percent.

Newport County not immune from growing trend: 

Newport County is not immune from this growing epidemic of teen depression and suicide. SurveyWorks school data for Newport County students (2010-2014 average) finds that 468 (24.32%) of middle school students and 594 (28.05%) of high school students surveyed reported depression. Of these, almost 40% reported recent suicidal ideation and 19 percent (14)  of middle school children and 21 percent (20) of high school students with depression symptoms reported a suicide attempt in the preceding 12 months.

Newport County RI has experienced the similar state-wide trend in which child and adolescent inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations have doubled over the past 8 years. This is not just an urban phenomenon. Suburban youth report the same level of emotional distress and rate of psychiatric hospitalization.

Common sense may tell parents that social media is to blame with reports of cyber-bullying on the rise. Bullying is one factor but not the only culprit, and like teenagers themselves, the reasons for the upswing in teenage suicide are complex and often nuanced.

Things parents should look for: 

One reason that surfaces in many publications and studies is that teens who isolate themselves may be suffering from social anxiety, which puts them at a greater risk for suicide. Social media and smartphones may contribute to this increase in social isolation but the research is not clear on this yet.

Author and Professor Jean Twenge wrote in a recent Atlantic Monthly article that teens today are “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades”.  The iGen teenagers differ from the Millennials who were teenagers only a few years before them because of the proliferation of smartphones now.

Professor Twenge attributes smartphones to teenagers’ inability to learn socialization and communication skills. In short, teenagers are engaging in their smartphones more than they are engaging with each other.

Another psychologist, Lynn Lyons reported in an October 2017 New York Times article that parents have overdone child-rearing to the point that iGen Johnny cannot manage his emotions because his parents have been managing them for him for most of his life. When he must endure a crisis on his own, he lacks the emotional skills that should have been learned in his earlier years or through his peers. High expectations and the pressure children feel to excel in school and in sports certainly contribute and may explain some of why teenagers are hospitalized at almost the same rates despite their demographic status.

Parents should be proactive when they begin observing some of the warning signs. Here are a few that may be worth delving into more deeply if they last more than two consecutive weeks in a row:

  • Avoiding social situations, especially school
  • Spending several hours alone following friends on social media
  • Frequent self-doubt
  • Worrying almost daily over perceptions of their friends and teachers
  • Constant fears about foods, health
  • Any mention that life is not worth living or they’d be better off dead

Some of the more promising approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy for social anxiety and dialectical behavioral therapy DBT) for those that have become self-injurious. Using both therapy and medication has proven higher success rates in teenagers than therapy or medication alone.


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