The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported a startling statistic on teen suicide: Emergency room visits for attempted suicide among teenage girls were up 51.6 percent in the first months of 2021, as compared to 2019.
So, what’s going on? And more to the point, what is going terribly wrong for our children? What’s creating such a level of suffering that suicide is seen as a potential solution? And, more urgently, what can we, as parents and adults in general, do about this disturbing new reality?
On a related side note, suicide is up in general. According to the CDC, “Suicide rates increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2019.”
It’s also worth mentioning that in almost every conversation about this topic I’ve had with teen and tween girls (including my own teen and tween daughters), I was told some version of the sentiment, “Girls can’t win these days.” Specifically, the pressure is overwhelming and relentless to look a certain way, have a certain body, a certain face, buy the right things, behave in a certain way, and have enough followers and likes. It feels like it is either be fabulous in every way—or be destroyed. The amount of judgment and criticism coming at our girls on social media is psychologically unmanageable for many of them.
I don’t want to use this space to posit theories on why we’re where we are today. Rather, I want to offer whatever I can to help. The first thing to know is a sobering truth: namely, that we don’t always know when our child is suffering to the extent that they would consider suicide.
In the past year alone, I learned of two different families who lost a teen to suicide; in both cases, the parents were loving and involved, and still didn’t know how badly their child was struggling. Teens are really good at hiding things and being secretive; it’s part of being a teenager and individuating. We can be really devoted to our kids and still not know what’s actually going on inside their minds. So, the first thing to know is that just because your kid doesn’t tell you how much pain they’re in doesn’t mean that their suffering is your fault and doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong.
If you’re worried, bringing the topic of suicide into the light doesn’t cause it. If a child isn’t depressed, talking about depression will not create it. We, as parents, need to talk about the hardest feelings our kids may endure, so that if and when they do feel such things, they know we’re available to help them through it.
Signs that a Teen is StrugglingThe degree to which our child may be suffering—or what she might be thinking of doing about it—isn’t always clear. But there are certain warning signs to watch for, particularly if your child has recently undergone an emotional upheaval, death, public humiliation, or a significant blow to their self-esteem or sense of belonging.
- Changes in appearance or hygiene
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- A sudden drop in grades
- Social withdrawal
- Talking about suicide or preoccupation with death. Examples include comments such as: “Nothing matters,” “I don’t care anymore,” “Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up,” “Everyone would be better off without me,” or “You won’t have to worry about me much longer.”
- Talk about hopelessness or having nothing to live for
- Researching suicide methods or acquiring potential weapons
- Giving away possessions
- Peer pressure and being bullied
- Sexual or gender identity confusion
Things you can do to help your teenIf you think your teen might be in imminent danger, call 911, your local emergency number, or a suicide hotline number—such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) in the United States. Or text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
If the danger isn’t imminent, you can take several other steps to help your child.
- Pay close attention to warning signs.
- Talk to your child about her feelings; be curious, ask questions, and actively listen to the answers. Don’t be afraid to use the word “suicide.”
- Never dismiss your child’s feelings. Consider all her feelings to be true and real.
- Remind your teen that you love her, and reassure her that she can get through this hard time and that you are right there to help her. Reassure her that things do get better and do, in fact, change.
- Monitor your teen’s social media use and talk with her about her online life.
- Encourage her not to isolate herself from friends and family.
- Encourage her to exercise and, if necessary, exercise with her.
- Monitor medications.
- Lock up any weapons (and possibly medications) in the house.