Suicide Is a Leading Cause of Death in the United States
(Especially Among Children, Teenagers, and Young Adults)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Leading Causes of Death Report in 2020, suicide was the 11th leading cause of death overall in the United States. Every day, approximately 132 Americans die by suicide – that is one suicide death every 10.9 minutes. In 2021, 48,183 Americans died by suicide, nearly twice the number of homicides (26,031).
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10-14 and 25-34, the third leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15-24, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35-44.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual kids are three times more likely than straight kids to attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Medically serious attempts at suicide are four times more likely among LGBTQ youth than other young people.
Mental illness is often a factor in teen suicides, but just as often the tragedy can be attributed to depression. Harmony Healthcare IT, a data management firm in the healthcare industry, reported in 2022 that 42 percent of Generation Z (anyone born from 1997 to 2012) had a diagnosed mental health condition, with anxiety far and away the most-diagnosed condition.
Mental illness and depression should be treated by licensed healthcare professionals. However, any Christian can play a role in helping struggling teens by watching for the factors that often lead to depression. Further, knowing what factors to look for will allow you to recommend that an at-risk teenager be referred to a mental-health professional. This is important because early intervention is critical in preventing teen suicide. Recommending this kind of referral to a parent or guardian is one of the most important contributions you can make in helping prevent teen suicides.
Mental-health professionals at Boston Children's Hospital have identified the following risk factors relating to teen suicide:
- Mental illness
- Family history of suicide
- Victim of physical abuse
- Victim of sexual abuse
- Losses (deaths of family or friends, broken relationships, estrangement after relocating)
- Impulsive behavior
- Eating disorders
- Financial problems
- Aggressive behavior
- Poor coping skills
- Unsupervised access to guns, knives, or other weapons that might be used for suicide
- Confusion over sexual orientation
- Feelings of being unloved or unwanted
- Personal insecurity
- Feelings of being misunderstood
- Divorce of parents
- Social rejection and loneliness
- Run-ins with law enforcement authorities
- Traumatic events (including events that are witnessed)
This list of factors is validated by both experience and research, but is not comprehensive. There can be other factors not listed here that put young people at risk of committing suicide. These factors don't necessarily mean a teenager is going to commit suicide. However, they do mean that young people who exhibit one or more of these factors fall into the at-risk category when it comes to suicide. Consequently, it is important for you to be aware of and sensitive to these factors.
In addition to the risk factors just listed, there are warning signs associated with teen suicide. Warning signs are a level above risk factors when it comes to how concerned you should be about the individual in question. Warning signs tell you that immediate action is called for. Boston Children's Hospital has identified the following warning signs relating to teen suicide:
- Preoccupation with death in conversation, written assignments, artwork, and other forms of self-expression
- Intense, unrelenting sadness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Lack of interest in activities, hobbies, or tasks that used to be important
- Withdrawal from family, friends, sports, social activities, school, or clubs
- Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, or both)
- Unnatural sleep patterns (sleeping very little or sleeping all the time)
- Giving away possessions, especially valued possessions
- Lack of energy (especially in a usually energetic teen)
- Risky behaviors that suggest the teen doesn't care if he or she is injured or worse
- Inability to focus, think clearly, or concentrate
- Sudden absenteeism from school
- Sudden drop in performance in school
- Change in appetite (loss or noticeable increase)
- Increased irritability and bouts of anger
Asking directly about suicide does not increase risk.
Loved ones frequently worry that asking someone about suicidal thoughts will "put the idea" in a sufferer's head. Multiple studies, however, show this concern is unfounded. In fact, experts agree that directly asking someone if they are considering suicide is the best and safest approach.
Church leaders concerned about someone's behavior should have a caring and nonjudgmental conversation in private. They should avoid arguing with a sufferer, minimizing his or her pain, or offering advice, but instead listen and be present. If a conversation elicits suicidal thoughts, it's crucial to determine the severity of suicidality by asking the following questions:
- Does this person have a plan to commit suicide?
- Does he have the means to kill himself?
- Does he intend to kill himself?
If someone describes passive thoughts of wanting to die, but denies a plan, means, or actual intent, referral to a licensed professional is appropriate. However, if someone describes active suicidal thoughts, a clear plan, available means, and strong intent, he or she needs immediate hospitalization. If a sufferer asks you to promise to keep their suicidal thoughts a secret, kindly, but firmly, decline—life and safety take priority over confidentiality.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a network of local crisis centers covering the entire nation that provides free and confidential support to people who are experiencing emotional distress or the warning signs of suicide. The Lifeline is open and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. People who answer calls to the Lifeline are trained crisis counselors who know how to respond in ways that help emotionally distressed individuals take a step back from the precipice and reconsider their suicidal thoughts. The Lifeline may be contacted online at suicidepreventionalifeline.org.