Suicide is a growing trend in the U.S. Every year since 1999, more people have killed themselves than the last. In this trend, teenagers are more at risk of dying at their own hands now than being murdered by someone else’s. This suicide paradox is becoming a larger threat to teenagers and taking more lives each year.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention.
“I don’t know if [teenagers] are any more susceptible [than adults],” East counselor Becky Wiseman said. “I think what’s unique to teenagers is that teenagers have an impulsivity. Typically, when they decide to do something, they act upon it very, very quickly, whereas in an adult, just because of the nature of how their brains work, they will give it some time and give it thought.”
The brain plays a key role in suicide. Ninety percent of the time, suicide can be traced back to mental illness, according to the University of Washington.
One of the most common illnesses in teenagers is depression. One in five are depressed, according to TeenHelp.com.
“‘You’re not worth it, you’re a burden to your parents, how could you put this on them when you’re dealing with so much?’; that is the depression,” Wiseman said. “That is the piece in your mind that’s not working well, that’s telling you’re not worthy, you’re just a problem to other people and that is depression. That is not based on any reality.”
But reality and the world around teenagers can influence them, and sometimes in negative ways. Earlier this year, beloved comedian Robin Williams committed suicide after years of fighting depression. Within a week after, traffic to suicide prevention websites and calls to prevention hotlines spiked. In some cases traffic increased to twice as much as before, according to Al Jazeera America.
It’s a pattern that’s been repeated in the past. In 1962, when Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in her early 30s, there was a noticeable increase in the amount of women committing suicides, according to NBC News. Again, in 1994, suicides rose after Kurt Cobain’s death.
“John Lennon’s death used to be a big anniversary time for suicides,” Sociology teacher Vicki Arndt-Helgesen said. “For kids, it’s very hard to experience that death of someone who is young because that makes us aware of our own vulnerability. We get kind of shocked no matter what it is. If it’s an illness or if it’s a car accident or if it’s a suicide, we are shocked.”
This paradox, according to NBC, can often be impacted by how the media covers a suicide. If the media glamorizes the tragedy, then it can lead to more deaths. If the media shows the repercussions of the act, then it’s believed it will steer people away from suicide.
But two suicides recently in the Kansas City area weren’t caused by the suicide of celebrity. One was caused by the other. After one girl’s suicide, her friend killed herself days later.
The tragedy came close to becoming a suicide cluster, where three or more people commit suicide in the same time and area. Clusters are very rare events, but they almost exclusively happen with teenagers, according to NPR.
“The thing that I get concerned about is, because I do think there’s such a vulnerability at this particular age, once there is one suicide, it’s almost like the thought can burble up,” Arndt-Helgesen said. “It can be, I don’t want to say permission giving, but it just brings it to the forefront, and some of the pain to the forefront.”
These suicide clusters are dangerous to teens because of how their brains are wired and how their social system is set up. For teenagers, peers serve as more of a model of how to behave and act than their parents do, according to NPR. It’s a developmental phenomenon called social modelling.
Teenagers are also more impulsive, according the Wiseman. When they’re faced with a problem, they’re more likely to jump to an immediate answer like suicide, especially if a peer has done it.
Arndt-Helgeson believes a big part of the problem is the way our society views mental illness. She believes there is still a stigma around mental diseases.
“We get very good at masking being okay, and it’s really hard if we perceive other people as being okay and moving on, then to feel comfortable about revealing our vulnerabilities,” Arndt-Helgeson said. “I wonder if all kids, at some point, whether it just slips through their brain, don’t wonder ‘what would [suicide] be like’.”