For youth between the ages 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 adolescents aged 10 through 19 commit suicide a year, and two million attempt suicide.
Suicide can stem from different factors depending on the living situation, social environment and age-related life-situation of the person involved. It is different for both genders, for racial and ethnic groups, for persons struggling with LGBT issues or in some other way feeling disenfranchised. It’s also different for different persons from other parts of the United States.
That being said, there are also some elements that are common to almost all cases.
According to Bill Geis, professor of psychiatry at the UMKC School of Medicine, there are many important differences in suicide and suicide attempts in adults and youth. One of the main differences is how in young persons, the most glaring issue is how frequently suicide attempts are driven by an impulsive crisis.
“In approximately a third of youth suicide attempts, the decision to make an attempt is made the same day the (impulsive) act occurs,” Geis said. “Our studies suggest that people are often in an altered state when this happens, and the person is in no way thinking clearly about their situation.”
Geis also says that there are strong differences in how adolescents become suicidal based on the type of school they attend: urban, rural, suburban and parochial. According to Geis, in urban (and some non-urban) areas, the stresses and risk factors often come “from the outside” in the form of violence, drug activity and lack of adequate resources, like housing, food and places to hang out. This builds over time so that one’s “bucket just gets too full.”
In parochial and suburban schools, such as Shawnee Mission East, these external intrusions aren’t as strong. Students are impacted by internal impingements such as pressure to succeed, constant competition and the feel of the need to win at everything done does.
“This is training for the real world, but sometimes the pressure is too much, just as a star athlete can be performing well, but then a genetic defect leads to a knee injury,” Geis said.
But many crisis situations also share common traits. According to Geis,almost all suicides start with some overwhelming sense of pain. That pain can be caused by trauma dating from early in the person’s life. The pain some experience can be genetically based and passed from parent to child.
“Often, persons at risk carry genetic vulnerabilities to being exquisitely sensitive to loss, rejection or personal disappointment,” Geis said.
This pain might include feeling like one does not belong, feeling bullied, relationship break-ups, family stress and other social stressors.
These days, scientists are focusing on six genes that are associated with negativity and impulsiveness.
“The person at risk typically has a point of view wherein they tend to see things in highly negative ways,” Geis said.
According to Geis, when individuals are most suicidal, they can be in an altered state of mind and only later realize their thinking has changed dramatically.
Maureen Underwood, clinical director of Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, said teenagers often have a distorted view of time.
“If you’re thinking like a teen, you’re thinking, ‘My life was terrible two months ago, it was terrible two weeks ago, and it’s terrible today, it must be terrible forever,’” Underwood said. “So there’s this inability to have enough life experience to know that you can have rough times, but you can also get through them.”
Underwood said that the scariest part of suicide in young people is how intentional the act is.
“Someone makes a choice to end their life,” Underwood said. “That’s terrifying for all of us, because it cries in the face of survival instinct. To think that you somehow disconnect, just for a couple seconds, from life — that’s it. With drunk driving, kids don’t have the intention of dying. With suicide, the intention is to end a life.”