Teenage Depression and Suicide. What Do We Know About Causes?
Suicide rates for our young people have been increasing and mental health levels have deteriorated in recent years. The covid pandemic and shutdown has certainly aggravated the mental health of our young people, but the levels had shown alarming increases even pre-pandemic.
If our current situation was caused by the pandemic we could quit worrying. The pandemic is over, and conditions are returning to normal. If the pandemic was the cause, the problem would soon be resolved.
But the pandemic is not the cause. The mental health and suicide rates of our young people were setting off alarms long before the pandemic.
How Much Have Teen Suicide Rates Increased?
A recent CDC report states “Adolescents are experiencing a mental health crisis.” The CDC report states more than 4 in 10 teens report feeling ‘persistently sad or hopeless,’ and 1 in 5 teens have contemplated suicide.
Adolescent suicides rose from 8.4 per 100,000 during the 2012-2014 timeframe to 10.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2018-2020, according to the new edition of America's Health Rankings Health of Women and Children Report from the United Health Foundation.
The rate of suicide among those aged 10 to 24 increased nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Suicide is Now the Second-Leading Cause of Death Among People Age 15 to 24 in the U.S.
Experts are concerned about these high levels of suicide. In response to rising rates of suicide among young people, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its policy in 2022, and now recommends universal screening for suicide for anyone 12 years and older.
Of course the suicide rate varies from state to state. In the 2018-2020 period, Alaska had the highest rate of adolescent suicides, at 40.4 per 100,000; that was approximately 8 times the rate of suicide in Massachusetts, which had the lowest ranking at 5.0 per 100,000.
Massachusetts is also consistently rated at the top, or near the top for public education. Good education requires a good school as well as a home setting that is conducive to learning. So somewhere between good schools and good stable homes, they're doing something right in Massachusetts.
Alaska on the other hand is always one of the top spenders for public education, but typically does not do all that well in the national rankings. And Alaska consistently struggles with some of the highest rates of child abuse and neglect in the nation. One out of 3 children in Alaska will be reported to the Office of Children’s Services for abuse or neglect before the age of 7. One out of 10 children in Alaska
will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Unfortunately Alaska also has one of the highest overall crime rates. Couple these facts with their longer, darker winters contributing to higher rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder and we might begin to understand Alaska's higher rate of teen suicide.
What Has Caused Teen Suicides to Increase?
But my concern is for the nation as a whole. What are the factors causing teen suicide levels to climb to these high levels? Certainly we might learn from Massachusetts, but even their teen suicide level has gone up in recent years. They are still doing better than the rest of the country, because they started off at a much lower rate. But what caused their suicide rate, right along with the rest of the country to get so high in recent years?
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. It is like reading Rorschach Ink blots. It's hard to say if you are seeing a pattern, or just your imagination. But there are some obvious causes.
We all know that correlation does not prove causation. But it doesn't DISPROVE causation either. Thus facts that are temporally associated might in fact be causative or contributory causes. Thus looking at the big megatrends of society might in fact lead to some insight. If we are to discover the cause of worsening mental health among teenagers we need to look at factors that were present before the pandemic and effected kids all the way from Alaska to Massachusetts. Something that effected kids all over the country.
The Rise of the Digital Age.
There are countless studies showing increased screen time and social media use to be associated with increased depression rates. I won't bore you with references. Just google "Screen time and teenage depression" and read some of the studies that come up. You will find major studies in JAMA Psychiatry, JAMA Pediatrics, the Lancet, eClinical Medicine, and the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. Some of these studies used longitudinal designs that show the increased screen time happened first and the mental health issues came after the increased screen time.
Many of todays teenagers also report being lonely and of having few or no friends. (Of course these reports are not limited to teenagers.) Other studies show that loneliness increases with increased screen time, which leads to greater concern about screen time and social media.
Last week the Seattle Public Schools filed a 90 page lawsuit, suing TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat. The school district claims the social media giants are substantially contributing to a youth mental health crisis. They claim these social media companies maximize use of their platforms for profit, even though research links these products to anxiety, depression and cyber bullying. Apparently, the social media companies did their own internal studies that showed the same thing: their products are harming youth.
Social Media, Bullying and Depression.
Research has found that bullying causes depression in school age youth. Victims of bullying in school are much more likely to be depressed. Hence, school bullying may be a factor in teen suicide.
The digital age elevates bullying to a new higher level with cyber bullying. Bullying has been around as long as schools have existed, but not cyber bullying. A study by the US National Institutes of Health found that cyber bullying is more likely to cause depression than regular bullying. Another sad aspect of this is that cyber bullies themselves, also have an increased rate of depression.
We Live in an Era of Changing Values.
Previous generations had the luxury of believing the same truths and having the same values as their parents and grandparents. Now society is changing rapidly. We've gone from homosexuality being banned in the military, to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, to inclusivity requires gays to serve openly. Marijuana was bad. Then it was a medicine. Now it is better than alcohol. LSD was for acid heads and societies rejects. Now it turns out it really does lead to enlightenment and magic mushrooms are being fast tracked by the FDA to resolve our mental health crisis. Once Christianity was good, Christmas was a special time of year, and we each took turns offering a prayer to start the school day. Now extreme right wing Christians are the enemy, prayer is banned and Christmas has been replaced with Winter Break.
The effect of rapid change was anticipated and the term Future Shock was used to describe people that just couldn't keep up with the changes. Part of the current massive teen depression is a type of Future Shock as teens try to embrace and process new values that require the teens to either reject what their peers believe OR consider their parents and grandparents as evil people, or at the very least people that were extremely ignorant.
The Trans Movement = Future Shock.
The impact of the Trans Movement on teen mental health is part of this Future Shock although discussing it is controversial. Many people consider this subject to be off limits, but I maintain adults of good will can discuss controversial subjects.
Trans people certainly have much higher rates of depression and other mental health challenges, but that is not the issue I bring up. If you take all Trans kids out of the equation, the remaining kids still have increased rates of depression and suicide in recent years and that is the issue.
What I am referring to is the impact the Trans Movement has had on the rest of society. When Boomers grew up, we did not have to question our gender. In fact, biological sex was the most sure thing about any particular individual. Their eye color might change. Their hair color certainly would change. They might find out their grandparents were Italian, not French. They might even find out their real dad was somebody they never met. But they didn't need to question their gender/sex. It was the one solid fact they could count on.
Much of a boomers role in life was determined by their gender. Boys took Shop class and girls took Home Ec. You opened the newspaper to look at the want adds and the jobs were conveniently divided by gender: HELP WANTED FEMALE or HELP WANTED MALE. Simply peruse the job listings and you could figure out what you were supposed to do with your life. Or at least what society expected you to do.
Now even the terminology used by the Trans Movement promotes fear and distrust. "The sex assigned at birth" implies that somebody else made a choice that you are stuck with. Maybe you got assigned to the wrong gender because the hospital had already used up the daily quota for your correct gender. Accepting the ideology of the Trans Movement means that nobody can be certain of their own gender. You can't be certain by looking at your genitalia. And maybe you just haven't discovered YET that you were mislabeled. Hence the Trans Movement creates two outcomes. One outcome is dissonance between those that do or do not accept the ideology. The other outcome is gender uncertainty for all that do accept the ideology.
This is not an argument that the Trans Movement IS or IS NOT a positive thing. Maybe these are changes that society needs to go through (or maybe not). The rightness or wrongness of the Trans Movement is not my point. My point is that in recent years teenagers have lost much of the bedrock foundation of life that we had previously. And dissonance and gender uncertainty, caused by the Trans Movement may be part of why teen mental health is down and suicides are up.
Unfortunately, political correctness and wokeness discourage discussion of these questions. Other than in obscure articles written by people like me, this question doesn't appear to receive much attention. Res ipsa loquitur, (the thing speaks for itself).
Lack of Coping Skills.
Often, today’s teens have been shielded from challenges. Many parents think it is their job to shield their children from failure and disappointment. Society seems to endorse this approach. For example, every kid that participates in sports gets a trophy these days. Many kids have never known the experience of watching somebody else get a trophy while they didn't get any recognition.
Even at home, many kids were never told "no" by their parents. Everything was always: Do you want to wear this shirt or that shirt? Instead of parents saying: "No, you can't wear your clown shirt to Church today. Wear this shirt." Children that have always won a trophy, and never been told "no", might not have learned how to deal with disappointment.
Stanford’s Resilience Project recognizes the need for kids to learn to deal with failure and rejection and has programs set up to teach these skills to young people, because, sadly, teens aren't learning these lessons at home or school.
These are Just Some of the Issues
That Effect Many Teens.
Although most depressed and/or suicidal teens are probably dealing with one or more of these issues, there are myriad other contributory causes that may be relevant in any particular teen's life.
How Do We Help Our Youth?
Strong establishment forces will fight change in all of these areas.
Screen time, social media and cyberbullying: There are powerful commercial interests protecting social media and indirectly protecting the cyberbullies that inhabit those digital kingdoms. These powerful special interests will fight any efforts to decrease screen time in general and social media use in particular.
Future Shock: Wokeness declares the Future Shock issues off limits and threatens to cancel anybody with the temerity to question these changes.
Lack of coping skills: Addressing teens lack of coping skills puts too much scrutiny on too many childrearing "experts" who will pushback against any honest evaluation of their ideology.
What can we do to overcome establishment forces and help our youth? There is plenty we can do. The good news is that there are many concrete steps we can take right now. Published studies show us what really works.
Next Week: What We Can Do to Help
Teenage Depression and Prevent Suicide.
Don't Forget the National
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
If you or somebody you know needs help NOW: In the U.S., call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Take care and BE HEALTHY!
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