The incidence of suicide in nearly all age groups has increased by 24 percent since 1999—and by 200 percent among girls between the ages of 10 and 14.
Theories behind such astounding unprecedented increases, reported recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vary. Some research says that among older Americans, the recent recession may have played a part, though the correlation is not a simple one.
As for why so many more young girls are killing themselves, the answers there, too, are complicated.
Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 showed the greatest rise in suicide of any age group since 1999, from 0.5 per 100,000 to 1.5 per 100,000 in 2014, according to last month’s CDC report.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, and it’s important to remember that adolescent suicide is still relatively rare, said Kimberly M. Nelson, a licensed clinical social worker, and senior vice president for services at Wheeler Clinic. The clinic provides behavioral and medical health care services around the state.
Nelson said suicides among young girls may be increasing for a variety—or combination—of reasons, including that age groups’ use of social media, the relatively early onset of puberty, and mental health professionals’ reluctance to aggressively treat attendant symptoms (depression and the like) among the group.
Social media has increased teens’ and tweens’ ability to reach out—and sometimes bully. Most of social networking, said Nelson, is unmonitored, and younger teens and tweens may not have appropriate impulse control to use the tools properly.
“Most suicides occur in the youth’s home, after school hours,” said Nelson. “That’s when youth are using social media. All afternoon and all evening, all sorts of stuff is going on in social media that contribute to isolation, and that really allow for bullying, and all those things nobody sees.”
Suicide remains one of the leading causes of death in this country, after heart disease, and cancer. For adolescents, leading causes of deaths include suicide, road accidents, and homicide.
Connecticut has one of the country’s lowest suicide rates, at 44th of 50—or roughly one person a day. State health care officials have been proactive to stop this largely preventable epidemic, starting in 1989 with a legislative-mandate youth suicide advisory board. In 2014, the state Department of Children and Families, and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services released a strategic plan to help prevent suicide in the state. The plan uses a collaborative approach among departments and agencies.
In the last few years, Connecticut legislators have passed a flurry of anti-bullying laws. Suicide is openly discussed in places such as the First United Methodist Church in Mystic, where the Emerson Theater Collaborative recently staged “Always Picked Last,” an anti-bullying play.
Still, Nelson said clinicians are seeing younger and younger children enter puberty, a notoriously difficult time. The vast majority—90 percent—of early-onset puberty in girls comes from unknown causes. Puberty at the beginning of last century generally started around age 16-17. That has dropped to age 12 or so—and sometimes even earlier. Some studies point to exposure to certain chemicals that hasten menarche, or the beginning of menstrual periods. Whatever the cause, mental health professionals, said Nelson, need to be aware.
“What we know is puberty brings with it the beginning of psychological distress,” Nelson said. “We see in line with puberty psychiatric disorders, depression, anxiety, social stressors, and that’s happening earlier and earlier. That’s something we need to think about.”
Nelson said the study is a wake-up call for mental health professionals.
“This clearly tells us we need to be paying closer attention to prevention and awareness of the younger female,” she said.
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at email@example.com.