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Why is teen suicide on the rise?

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

A teenage girl with bright red hair sits on the steps of a school with a hard-to-read expression

If you’re thinking about ending your life, help is available now. Call or text the free, confidential 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 anytime. You can also text HOME to 741741 to reach a counselor at the Crisis Text Line.

Most parents instinctively want to protect our children from pain. We try to cushion them against the thorny parts of growing up, and we hold them close as they start to recognize the challenges of the world. When they become teenagers and move toward independence, as they should, keeping them safe may get even harder. This can feel especially difficult when we see the kids in our lives struggling with their mental health.

After spending their formative years in pandemic lockdown, a generation of young people are facing a range of social issues: climate change, gun violence, polarized politics, and more. It’s been widely reported that today’s teenagers are experiencing higher levels of sadness, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Sometimes the best way to keep kids safe is to admit we don’t have all the answers—and to turn toward those who can help.

Teens are thinking more about suicide

The 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) included some alarming statistics: The number of teens thinking about suicide and dying by suicide had increased dramatically since 2011.1 Of the high school students surveyed, 22% reported having seriously considering suicide in the past year, and 18% had made a suicide plan—an increase of 5% for both numbers since 2011. During the same time period, the number of reported suicide attempts increased from 8% to 10%.

What is suicidal ideation?

Suicidal ideation, sometimes referred to as “suicidality,” refers to contemplating, wishing for, or being preoccupied with death or suicide.2 There’s no official clinical definition, so physicians and mental health professionals use a variety of tools to diagnose patients. Suicidal ideation can vary in intensity and degree, but most medical intake forms offer limited options for expressing it, which can lead to misdiagnosis or underdiagnosis.3

Amber M. Samuels, PhD, LPC, says the CDC’s findings may highlight one hopeful shift. “We now have a better understanding of the risk factors for suicide, so we can identify teens at risk,” she says. “We also have more sensitive screening tools and clinicians who are better trained to assess and manage suicidal ideation in teens.”

These measures have helped put more at-risk teens on the radar, but Samuels says an even greater number of teens have a broad range of mental health concerns. An estimated one in seven adolescents ages 10 to 19 has a mental health disorder.4 Anxiety and depression are the most common—and both of those conditions are risk factors for suicide, says Samuels.

Common warning signs

There’s no single sign that someone is thinking about suicide. But if any of the following behaviors appear suddenly, a teen may be struggling:

  • Increased risk-taking
  • Substance abuse
  • Withdrawal from social activities and friend groups
  • Mood swings or greater irritability
  • Declining academic performance
  • Giving away personal belongings
  • Engaging in self-harm

If you notice these red flags or anything else that seems unusual, look for professional help as soon as possible. “Taking warning signs seriously and addressing them can save lives,” Samuels says.

Browse our directory to find a therapist near you.

Stay in touch to stay connected

If the teen in your life is behind closed doors most of the time, you may be wondering how to spot those warning signs. Keeping communication lines open can help you notice changes in behavior. Most teens rarely volunteer details about their emotional state, but creating a safe space where they feel loved and accepted can encourage them to come forward.

Checking in often but not intrusively is a good way to build that space. During a car ride or another quiet moment, ask what’s new at school or work. Follow-up questions like “How do you feel about that?” may help the conversation go a little deeper.

One caveat: Make sure you’re ready to receive their answer in a supportive way, whatever it may be. Teens are much more likely to share if they don’t feel judged.

How teens talk about suicide

If you’re active on social media, you may have come across the word “unalive.”5 This term is sometimes used by teens and others to bypass social algorithms that block the word “suicide” and related language.

Samuels is cautiously optimistic about this trend. “The use of invented language in internet discourse can help minimize the risk of triggering trauma for survivors, while still allowing for open and honest conversations about these important topics,” she says.

As a mental health professional, Samuels has used “unalive” in her own posts. “I haven’t once used the word ‘suicide’ in my content,” she says. “I’d prefer to, but I’m afraid that would result in my educational content being removed or censored by the platform.” Instead she’d rather stay in the conversation so she can help provide informed support.

Who’s most at risk?

Suicide can affect anyone at any time, but certain groups are more vulnerable to suicidal ideation. Teens are more likely to think about suicide if:

They’re members of the LGBTQIA+ community: The Trevor Project reports that LGBTQIA+ youth are over four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, with 45% seriously considering suicide in the past year—and young transgender and nonbinary people are more than twice as likely as their cisgender LGBTQIA+ peers to consider and attempt suicide.6 Samuels notes that this is the result of discrimination, bullying, and a lack of social support.

They identify as female: According to the CDC, experts have lately seen an increase in suicidal ideation among teen girls. In 2021, 30% reported having seriously considered a suicide attempt in the past year; that’s more than double the rate for boys (14%).7 Possible factors include gender disparities in how teens display depression: Boys often show irritability and aggression, while girls often struggle with persistent sadness.8 In addition, sexual violence against teen girls has risen in recent years.9

They’re people of color: The suicide rate among young Black people ages 10 to 24 jumped more than 30% between 2018 and 2021, and suicidal ideation increased among Black, Asian American, and Hispanic teens.10, 11, 12 Lack of access to mental health care, a higher likelihood of adverse childhood experiences, and systemic and interpersonal discrimination all factor into this spike.

They’re trauma survivors: Teens with a history of trauma are more likely to be at risk for suicide. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can result from sexual abuse, violence, bullying, traumatic grief, or prior suicide attempts. PTSD can also lead to other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, which helps explain why adolescents with PTSD are 23% more likely to consider suicide.13

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Research results are mixed on how pandemic lockdowns affected teen suicide rates. Some studies indicate that the rate increased, while others show the opposite.14, 15

This lack of clarity is rooted in the fact that each young person experienced pandemic restrictions differently. For teens isolated in abusive home environments, for example, the lockdown was likely negative. But for students who were bullied or otherwise felt unsafe at school, isolating at home may have been a relief.

Experts agree, though, that we’re now seeing the mental health aftereffects of the pandemic—and young people are having a really hard time.

“Teens have had to deal with disruptions to their education, social lives, and family routines, and many have experienced grief and loss due to the pandemic,” says Samuels. As a result of the collective trauma people have suffered over the past several years, teens now show higher levels of anxiety and depression.16

The role of gun violence

When it comes to suicidal ideation, treatment often focuses heavily on the individual. But more recently, some experts have begun exploring the systemic issues behind the rise in teen suicidality. In the United States, gun violence is one of those issues.

This broadly affects two groups of young people: those who die of suicide by gun, and those who are exposed directly or indirectly to gun violence. Direct exposure may mean living in places where gun violence is high, or living through a mass shooting in the community. But even indirect exposure, such as seeing disturbing images on the news, can cause significant stress and anxiety.17

The number of teen gun deaths and injuries is growing, especially among Black boys.18 Gun deaths among children and teens rose nearly 50% between 2019 and 2021, and of those fatalities, 60% were homicides and 32% were suicides.19 Approximately 4.5 million kids live in homes with unsecured guns, and research shows that this access puts them at much higher risk for suicide.20, 21

How to find help

If a teen shares immediate thoughts of suicide with you, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. This free, confidential resource is available 24/7.

If they aren’t in immediate danger but are showing signs of depression, anxiety, or any of the other indicators noted above, working with a mental health professional can help.

Types of therapy for suicidal ideation

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can be very effective at treating suicidal ideation. These two common types of therapy make a difference by helping clients regulate their emotions and practice self-awareness.22 Family therapy can also help improve communication between teens and family members.

Depending on a child’s symptoms, medical history, and needs, the therapist they work with may recommend inpatient treatment, an intensive outpatient program, outpatient therapy, medication, or a combination of those options. To find a licensed mental health professional near you, browse our directory.

If therapy is out of reach financially, free and affordable resources are available. If you’re a parent, ask your child’s school if they have a counselor on staff or if they can connect you with affordable mental health services in your community.

Destigmatize mental health care in your home

Discovering that your child is thinking about suicide can be terrifying, and as a parent you may feel lost. But you have more power to help than you may think.

A great first step is to talk about mental health as a necessary part of caring for yourself. If you go to therapy, share that with your child. Normalizing the mental health struggles your teen may be facing will help them feel validated, which is an important protective factor in keeping them safe.

Sources

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.