What’s Behind the Dramatic Rise in Teen Suicide? 

A child psychiatrist shares insights gained from his work with children and teens who have contemplated suicide
By Conan Milner, Epoch Times

Life is hard, but the transition from child to teen can be especially rough. For a growing number of young people, the process is so unbearable they do the unthinkable.

According to an October 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the suicide rate among U.S. children aged 10 through 14 has nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017. The suicide rate among older teenagers (15 to 19) has also increased by 76 percent.

The report doesn’t try to explain these figures. But as the number of young people killing themselves climbs steadily over a decade, you can’t help but wonder why.

Dr. Suvrat Bhargave, a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry, points to several contributing factors. Bhargave is saddened by the CDC statistics, but not surprised by them. Many of the kids who come to his office suffer from extreme anxiety and uncontrolled rage, and they confront pressures and circumstances unknown to previous generations. Bhargave profiles some of these cases in his new book, “A Moment Of Insight.”  

People have always struggled with inner demons, but why are more succumbing to them today? Although it can be difficult to contemplate such a devastating trend, Bhargave believes it’s our duty to address it and try to fix it.

“If we as parents were given such scary numbers for the increase in deaths from some superinfection, we would declare this a crisis and demand that it be investigated more aggressively,” Bhargave said.

The Epoch Times talked with Bhargave to understand why kids turn to suicide, and what can be done to change their minds.

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Dr. Suvrat Bhargave, a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry (Photo courtesy of Dr. Bhargave)

The Epoch Times: When I read the CDC statistics, my first thought was, “What has happened to  make so many kids take this path?”

Dr. Suvrat Bhargave: I think what makes the numbers shocking, confusing, and disappointing is that we don’t have one answer to that question. Suicide has always been a multifactorial complex act and condition. But now, more than ever, we have to look at a wide range of factors.

One is the rise in depression and mental illness in adolescents and kids. It is a very real factor that can contribute to suicide.

There’s also more stress in general in the lives of children. Within their families and homes, there is more stress. Within the schools, there is more stress. In their social circle, they’re feeling more pressure as well. That contributes to this.

Strong community connection gives kids a sense of support which is protective against suicide, but we have a more divisive environment in general that we’re living in right now. When you have an environment that is angrier and more divisive, with stronger expressions of frustration, that definitely affects children. There are also ongoing problems with childhood abuse and neglect. A child who is being abused at home is more likely to end up hurting themselves. We know that to be the case.

Another factor has to be their increased exposure to violence in general. That affects children and how they react to things. I think you also have to put into account their access to firearms. More and more often what they’re using to commit suicide are guns and they have more access to them.

There is also an increase in drug use, that includes opioids as well as other drugs. In the old days, it was marijuana and alcohol. Today, there are many kids who have more access to medications—pain medicines from their parents’ rooms and other places. They’re trying it. And it is something we need to be talking to kids about because it’s part of their reality.

There’s also more visibility of suicide in media and online. When we were growing up, suicide was something that was very out there and couldn’t possibly affect us in our own homes and communities. Now, the world community is smaller. We have more of a media and online presence.

The Epoch Times: You mentioned a need for community connection. With social media, it seems we’re now more connected than ever. What kind of connection do kids need and why is that not being met?

Dr. Bhargave: You would think that with all of these platforms that we have available to us that we ought to be more connected than ever.

They have more exposure to negative feedback, more exposure to cyberbullying, as well as their sense of self-being tied to having enough likes. All of that is part of the problem.

Another thing is that we have all of the advancements of social media being able to connect us across geography, but the fact is that the most nurturing and fulfilling relationships in our lives are the ones that come with in-person, one on one interactions.

For a lot of children, because they have some way of interacting on their devices, be it texting or social media, they’re not giving as much importance to real-life connections. And those are the ones that emotionally foster us the most.

The Epoch Times: It sounds like social media is hurting kids’ need for connection rather than helping it.

Dr. Bhargave: Just the word friend itself has been diluted. When you talk about how many friends you have, kids think about the amount on their Instagram or Facebook page, not the way we used to think about having friends.

I find myself in practice having to redefine what it means to be socially successful. Because a lot of times kids think the more friends you have on social media is an indication of how many friends you have socially. But when I talk about friends, I mean the relationships that are mutually nurturing, mutually respectful. We’re socially successful when we have two to four really good friends from that standpoint.

A lot of kids don’t have that. It’s not in their concept of what it means to be connected.

When you talk about having a social network or a community that supports you, it gives you a sense of belonging. If at some moment, you don’t feel good enough or feel hopeless, there are others around you who will lift you up. Without that kind of community around, kids are more likely to, in the moment, decide that there is no way out. And suicide really is about the moment. Most kids who contemplate and attempt suicide are reacting in the moment to a feeling that there is no other way out. We’ve got to really shore up one another by expressing empathy, showing concern, and having a sense of community.

The Epoch Times: Friendship seems like such a timeless idea. Have we really grown so out of touch with what we need from genuine personal connection?

Dr. Bhargave: I’ve had young people in the last couple years talk about relationships they have with girlfriends and boyfriends that they met online. And the more we talk, I find that they’ve never actually met. But they consider these relationships to be intimate enough that they call them their significant other. Maybe we took for granted that kids will learn this, but we can’t do that anymore. We have to go back to what true connection and true friendship is, and what the value of it is. There is something very different from that experience than just connecting online.

The Epoch Times: You mentioned exposure to violence as a contributing factor to suicide. Kids must know that video games and movies are different from real life. How does this have an influence?

Dr. Bhargave: There is desensitization with exposure to violence. Video games are a part of that, I think. Media and the internet are a part of that. At your fingertips there’s a lot you see now that we were never exposed to as children. What they see are options for them. How they respond on impulse is all affected by exposure.

Take for example an impulsive child—as many children are. If you know you have an impulsive child, then you have to be particularly careful about their exposure to violence. If an impulsive child gets angry and his very first thought is to body slam his younger brother, then how can it be argued that what he was exposed to didn’t somehow affect his decision in that moment?

In hindsight, the impulsive child can certainly reflect, express remorse, and think of other ways to have handled it. But for many children, their very first thought is what they act on. And in the case of suicide, there may not be a second chance. You may not be able to reflect and think about how you should have done something else. The influences in the lives of children have always been important. But right now, the kinds of influences they have, and the sources for those are much more varied.

The Epoch Times: You say that parents don’t take the CDC suicide statistics as seriously as they would an infection epidemic. Why do you think we’re so hesitant to embrace this?

Dr. Bhargave: There are some myths that come from a place of fear. One example is that if you talk about suicide with children they will be more likely to commit it. Or if we talk about what it means to be depressed and anxious, that they’ll become depressed and anxious. Those really are myths. There is no validity in that. But it comes from a place of fear.

I understand that as a parent and someone who works with children, there is always a little bit of trepidation with talking about difficult subjects with kids. But the reality is that kids are exposed to and are becoming aware of these difficult topics. So if we’re not the ones talking about it, we don’t know where they’re getting their information, and we don’t know what solutions they’re being offered, or what they’re being encouraged to think about.

Adults should talk to kids very openly about their emotional well-being and mental health. These are things that we should talk about as much as the factors that affect our physical well-being. We talk to kids all the time about making sure they get enough sleep and eat right because those are very important topics. So why do we shy away from emotional well-being? It should be just as much of a topic as physical well-being.

We need to have open discussions about emotional development and social skills, and we need to be intervening earlier, whether it’s in the school or within families. We need to have discussions about fostering empathy, for example, and help kids develop their emotional skills. We need to help them identify what they’re feeling and how to express each of those emotions.

A lot of times kids tend to clump emotions into two categories: they either feel good or bad. Emotions are much more specific, but if we don’t give kids the vocabulary, they can lump all emotions together. Anger is not expressed the way sadness, fear, or embarrassment are expressed. We have got to give kids ways to express themselves appropriately and accurately so that it doesn’t just weigh them down.

When I ask kids about the different ways they can describe their moods and they have a hard time with it, I tell them to pull out their phone and take a look at all the face emojis. If there were only two emotions, good or bad, there would only be two faces.

It’s just one way to visually show them that there is a complexity to emotions, and yet it’s worth it to express specifically what you’re feeling so that it doesn’t build up.

The Epoch Times: Since we live in such polarized times, inclusiveness is not a message we hear too often.

Dr. Bhargave: That’s a trend we have to address head-on, because we’re headed in a direction where we vocalize our differences much more than we focus on the things that make us all similar. For all the things that divide us, there’s nothing you have felt that I haven’t felt. One place of commonality is our emotional states. We’ve all felt sad, angry, embarrassed, disappointed, or happy at some point in our lives. That’s a basis from which we can find other places of commonality with one another. I don’t think we’re having enough discussions in a broader sense what makes us all more alike, even in our own homes.

The Epoch Times: Are there clear warning signs that a kid needs help and is not coping well with life?

Dr. Bhargave: There are definitely warning signs from children who are having a tough time. While we may not be able to identify exactly which child is building up to the idea that they don’t belong here anymore and wants to die, we can certainly intervene early with the child who feels ostracized, overwhelmed, discouraged or even the child who is being more irritable and acting out more.

When we talk about mood disorders in children, we find they don’t always experience it in the ways that adults do. When I use the word depression, people think about sadness, but the number one symptom in adolescent depression is actually irritability. So when you find your child being easily irritated and frustrated inwardly and outwardly, that’s a sign where we need to be asking, “Are you okay?”

Checking in is something I don’t think we do enough with each other. It doesn’t take a lot to ask “How are you really doing? I’ve noticed lately that you’ve been more to yourself, and you seem more frustrated. I’ve noticed that you’re staying in your room more.” Start the conversation. Check in with your child regularly and periodically. As mentors in the lives of kids, it’s something I encourage adults to think about.

The Epoch Times: What’s the best way to approach kids who might be struggling? And what approaches should we avoid?

Dr. Bhargave: Putting yourself in a position where you’re telling someone else how you feel requires a degree of vulnerability. We should model for kids what it means to be vulnerable, what it means to be able to be in touch with our own feelings, and that’s true for men and women. We need to let young girls and boys know that it’s okay to talk to people who are close to them about how you feel. The cultural ideas that real boys don’t cry, or young ladies should only behave a certain way—we’re going to have to challenge those stereotypes because it’s not serving our children anymore.

Show them that it’s not taboo. Have these discussions regularly across the kitchen table. Let them know that it’s okay to talk if they’re having difficulty with anything that they might be thinking or feeling. We have to create a space where it’s okay to do that.

A lot of times parents will say to me, “How do I have the talk with my child?” Well, anything that’s “the talk,” that right there sounds foreboding and uncomfortable. But if these are just a series of conversations that we’re having with our kids, then this is what they know.

There are crisis points where you have to have a discussion. Every community has been affected by suicide at some point, and what I find within my own little community where there has been another unfortunate case of a young person taking their lives is that everyone is wondering how to talk about this. But it’s really more about having a series of discussions from the time that they’re young all the way through to make sure emotional well-being is prioritized. That’s what’s important.

The Epoch Times: What drives children to suicide?

Dr. Bhargave: Many children have a build-up to the way in which they feel. There are experiences, for example, being bullied, or having an argument with a friend, disappointing a teacher by not doing well on a test, or getting in trouble with parents for something they did.

All of these things might just seem like day-to-day things that happen with children, but if you have a child who is already feeling discouraged, feeling not good enough, or has a low sense of themselves, then these things we think of as a part of normal childhood are actually much bigger for that child.

But suicide, the act of taking your own life, is a moment where you just can’t see a way out. I’ve talked to kids who have been suicidal try to describe what it was like in that moment, and they just don’t see any reason to keep going. Thankfully, most people who have had suicidal thoughts eventually think of something they can hold on to. It might be that ending their life would greatly affect their parents. I had one young person say to me yesterday that it was because of a cat. Her cat came into the room, and that was the reason she stopped thinking about it.

You hope there is something that comes in their mind that gives them a sense of belonging, purpose, and hope. At the end of the day, hope is what keeps us all going when any of us are having a difficult time.  But if you’re having a moment where you can’t think of what to be hopeful about, that’s where people have taken their lives.

Hope to me is simply the possibility of there being something good. When you’re severely depressed, and have circumstances in your life that keep telling you that there is nothing to live for, sometimes it’s very, very hard to find hope.

When you’re feeling down, depressed, and hopeless, reach out to someone. I know it’s sometimes the hardest thing to do in those moments, but it’s the most important thing. Reach out to a friend, adult or mentor. If you can’t think of anyone in your life you know of, sometimes it’s better to reach out to someone who is anonymous that you think won’t be able to judge you. In that case, reach out to the suicide prevention hotline: 1800-273-TALK (8255).

But just reach out. If you can’t think of a reason to hold on, let someone else help you.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner
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