The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in innumerable ways. However, for many teenagers, it has come at a highly vulnerable point in their life. Teenagers already face a unique set of challenges, but add isolation, boredom, increased time on social media, and anxiety about the future, and you have what could be an explosive cocktail. Studies have already shown an increase in attempted suicides in teens since the pandemic began, especially among young girls.
According to a study by the CDC, the increase in suicidality started in May 2020, and from February to March 2021, emergency rooms visits for suspected suicide attempts were over 50% higher among girls aged 12–17 than during the same period in 2019. For boys of the same age, the increase was just under 4%.
Substance abuse is also a concern among adolescents. Before the pandemic, 15% of high school students reported using an illicit drug, and 14% reported misusing prescription opioids. Solitary substance use (as opposed to social use) has also increased among adolescents during the pandemic.
In addition, anxiety and depressive disorders have increased, with 56% of young adults (ages 18-24) reporting symptoms. And compared to all adults, young adults are more likely to report substance use (25% vs. 13%) and suicidal thoughts (26% vs. 11%).
As September is Suicide Prevention Month, we are interviewing the CEO of Open Mind Health, Dr. Craig Beach, for his insight into how parents, relatives, and friends can spot the signs of a troubled teen or young adult and what they can do about it. Dr. Craig Beach has a unique perspective as a forensic and general psychiatrist who has dealt with mental illness and its’ effects for his entire career.
Q. Dr. Beach, what behavioral changes could indicate suicidal tendencies in teens or young adults?
A. The signs can be varied and depend on the individual, so it’s essential to recognize any significant changes in behavior. Some examples include talking about hopelessness, suicide, death or depression, loss of interest in favorite activities, school, or sports, changes in sleep patterns or eating habits, pulling away from friends or family, and engaging in increased risk-taking behaviors.
Q. Why do you think the pandemic has increased suicidal tendencies more in adolescent girls than boys?
A. There is no significant research yet that has pinpointed why girls’ suicidal tendencies have increased so much more during COVID. However, even before the pandemic, girls attempted suicide at a higher rate than boys, although boys are more likely to complete suicide because they often use more violent methods, such as guns. One theory is that many adolescent girls rely heavily on a network of friends and are more social in general. Therefore, the physical distancing during COVID may have been even more isolating for girls than boys. Girls also tend to examine their feelings more deeply, and the time alone may have increased that causing more anxiety while at the same time not enabling the usual communication outlets in person with friends.
Q. What is the correlation between substance abuse and suicide among people?
A. Suicide, depression, and substance use have a very close and interconnected relationship, and more than 90% of people who complete suicide suffer from depression, a substance abuse disorder, or both. People that are dealing with depression often turn towards drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. However, substance abuse increases the severity and duration of depression, so its a vicious cycle. And many substances impair judgment, so people that generally would not act on suicidal thoughts may be more emboldened and disinhibited because of their lack of clarity while on alcohol or drugs.
Q. Is there such a thing as contagious or copycat suicide? In other words, are adolescents that hear about other teens or young people attempting suicide more likely to try it themselves?
A. This question came up often after the premiere of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why which explored the reasons for a young girl’s suicide. Based on a book, the series drew concerns from both parents and mental health experts that it might lead to more suicides. Research does suggest that exposure to a peer's suicide can have a "contagious" effect — especially among 12- to 13-year-olds. And the findings of the TV show's impact were also eye-opening:
In the days following the premiere of "13 Reasons Why," researchers found a significant spike in internet searches using terms such as "how to commit suicide" and "how to kill yourself."
A more recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health found a 29% increase in suicide among U.S. adolescents between ages 10-17 after the release of season 1. In April 2017, the month after Netflix released all 13 episodes for streaming, the teen suicide rate in this age group reached a 19-year high. It remained high the rest of the year, with 195 more suicides reported in this age group than would have been expected.
Another study found that students between 18-29 who watched the show's entire second season had fewer thoughts of suicide and greater interest in helping someone feeling suicidal than those who didn't view any episodes. However, researchers found students who watched only part of season 2 showed higher suicide risk and less optimism about the future.
That said, the show can serve as a powerful teaching tool, but experts encourage parents to watch with their teens and discuss what they are seeing and not allow children under 13 to view.
Q. Dr. Beach, if someone is concerned that a young person may be considering suicide, how can they help?
A. First of all, don’t wait. If you're worried, talk to the young person right away and practice prevention. Make sure that anyone who is potentially suicidal does not have access to guns or pills. Take advantage of the many resources that are available where you can get advice such as:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741. You also can contact them through their website.
Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ community: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. You can also contact them through their website.
You can also call 911 for immediate help or the new number that the FCC established 988 as the unique, nationwide, 3-digit phone number for Americans in crisis to connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that all children over age 12 get screened for depression at their yearly checkups.
The bottom line is that suicide is often preventable with the proper intervention and treatment. And don’t ever be afraid to ask for help because many professionals and resources can offer advice on what you or your loved one can do.
For more information about how Open Mind Health can help, click here.
To hear more from Dr. Craig Beach, click here for his video on suicide.