By Linda Carroll
(Reuters Health) – Suicide rates among U.S. youth have been on the rise for nearly a decade, with the sharpest increase in young girls, a new study shows.
After examining records from more than 85,000 youth aged 10 to 19 who took their own lives, researchers found that between 2007 and 2016, suicides among children aged 10 to 14 climbed by nearly 13 percent annually among girls, and by a little over 7 percent per year among boys, according to the report in JAMA Network Open.
“What we saw was a significant disproportionate increase in younger female rates,” said the study’s lead author, Donna Ruch, a researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “There’s been a gender paradox where we always see rates of death higher in males than in females, but there is a higher rate of attempts and suicidal ideation in females.”
Ruch suspects that the bigger increase in deaths among girls is related to changes in the methods girls choose to try to kill themselves.
“Now they are using more lethal means,” Ruch said. “And that really concerns us.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 19 years in the U.S., Ruch and her coauthors note.
To take a closer look at suicide trends among the young, Ruch and her colleagues analyzed nationwide data on suicides among kids aged 10 to 19 from 1975 to 2016.
The researchers identified 85,051 deaths among U.S. youth between 1975 and 2016, about 80 percent of which were in boys.
Rates of suicide in kids aged 10 to 14 had trended downward between 1993 and 2007, with yearly decreases of around 2 percent to 3 percent, the researchers found. After that they began to rise again, by 12.7 percent per year among girls aged 10 to 14 years and by 7.1 percent among boys in the same age range. Similar trends were seen among kids aged 15 to 19, with a decline until 2007, then annual increases of 7.9 percent among girls and 3.5 percent among boys.
Ruch and her colleagues can’t explain the increases. Finding a reason is “an important next step,” she said.
In the meantime, she advises parents to be alert for warning signs that a child might be in danger: “Is the child making suicidal statements? Are they unhappy for longer periods of time? Are they withdrawing from friends and school activities? Are they increasingly irritable or aggressive?”
If they are, Ruch said, “that’s when you should start to consider taking your child to a mental health professional.”
Suicide expert Ian Rockett suspects that the numbers in the study are an underestimate of the number of girls who kill themselves. “We know that females are more inclined to use drug intoxication as a method,” said Rockett, a professor emeritus in the epidemiology department at West Virginia University in Morgantown, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. “That’s less likely to be picked up as a suicide. And the narrowing (of the difference in suicide rates between boys and girls) reported in this study would be greater, I suspect, if they had truly accurate data.”
Rockett believes that media may play a role in the rising rates of suicide among young people.
He points to a soon to be published paper he’s coauthored that links the Netflix television series “13 Reasons Why” with increased suicide rates among both boys and girls. “The association we found is actually stronger in females,” he said. “And that should be a cause for concern related to exposure to mass media.”