Suicide Rates Among Young Americans Have Hit Their Highest Levels in Almost 20 Years

Suicide rates among young people in the U.S. have hit their highest levels in almost two decades, a study has revealed.

In 2017, a total of 6,241 people aged between 15 to 24 ended their lives, according to a study published in the journal JAMA. Of those, 5,016 were male and 1,225 were female.

That year, the suicide rate for teenagers aged between 15 to 19 was 11.8 percent 100,000, versus 8 per 100,000 in 2000.

Figures on those aged between 20 to 24 showed rates had gone up from 12.5 per 100,000 in 2000 to 17 per 100,000 in 2017.

The figures came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Underlying Cause of Death database, which comes from information on death certificates and estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, the researchers at Harvard Medical School and Tel Aviv University pointed out the study was limited because the cause of death on certificates may have been documented incorrectly. They gave the example of an individual dying by suicide caused by opiods being mistaken for an accidental overdose.

At the same time, the rise could also be partly explained by better reporting of incidents "possibly due to coroners and families being more willing to label the death as suicide, or changes in the use of opioids or incidence of depression," they wrote.

The research is the latest to shine a light on the state of mental health among young Americans. A study published last year in the journal The American Academy of Pediatrics revealed the rate of children and teens contemplating suicide rose between 2008 and 2015. And an editorial published in the journal The Lancet in 2018 described the rate of suicide in the U.S. among all age groups as a "public health emergency."

Oren Miron, co-author of the study at the department of Biomedical Informatics, Harvard Medical School, told Newsweek she was surprised to find a surge in suicide among male adolescents in the past three years, as this hasn't been previously reported.

This surge was novel, she said, "since previous reports showed more of an increase in females."

The study "shows that suicide rates are dynamic, and change differently in different age groups and sexes. It also shows that suicide rates are reaching peak levels, and so we must improve our mental health solutions to suicide."

The study didn't look at the causes of suicide, she said. "Previous studies showed that risk factors to suicide include social media use and opioid abuse etc. Future studies could examine if those factors changed during the years where we found the increase.

"We plan a future study examining if the opioid epidemic has been in a factor in the recent surge of suicide in young males, but this was not analyzed in this study."

Dr. Alexandra Pitman, associate professor in the division of psychiatry at UCL who was not involved in the research told Newsweek the research used robust statistical methods. She said the findings mirror the increases in young people presenting at emergency departments with self-harm between 2001 and 2015 in a separate study cited by the authors.

"Many people will be alarmed by these findings, but more alarmed to learn that we remain unclear about the causes of the observed increases. Explanations suggested include the pressures introduced by the culture of social media use in this age group, difficulties accessing mental health services, and changing attitudes to suicide as a means of coping with difficulties, fueled in part by media portrayals of suicide.

"These are all hypotheses, and they remain untested," she stressed. "There is no reason to suspect that young people would respond less well to medication, therapy, or psychosocial interventions for depression or anxiety than people in other age groups. However, young people tend to be less well represented in trials of treatments to address common mental disorders than older people."

More research to understand the factors contributing to the apparent rise in suicide rates among young people is needed, in order to reverse the trend, she said.

Professor Keith Hawton, director of the Centre for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford told Newsweek: "The rise in suicides in both genders aged 15 to 19 years appears to have preceded the rise in young adults aged 19-24 years.

"This suggests that the increase in risk first started in the younger age group and then that group carried this increased risk into young adulthood. Such a trend may have significance for future suicide rates in the population as this group grows older, as evidence from other countries has shown what we call 'cohort effects,' i.e. the risk in a particular age group is carried forward as the group grows older."

He also suggested factors such as the influence of social media and the associated social pressures, and consequent increases in mental health problems, particularly anxiety, could be partly to blame.

If you have suicidal thoughts, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day.

This article has been updated with comment from Professor Keith Hawton.