Teenage Suicide, COVID and Teens: Is There a Connection?
For the past 15 years, rates of suicide among children, teens and young adults have increased 60 percent. Currently, suicide causes more deaths among children and teens than illness or firearm incidents.Before March, 2020, vehicle accidents were the leading cause of death among children and teens.
What happened to provoke such a disturbing rise in teen suicides recently? Experts point to one reason only: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many state governors began issuing stay-at-home orders in the spring and summer of 2020. Suddenly, school-age children transitioned from in-class learning to remote learning.
Nonessential businesses closed for most of the summer, leaving parents worried about how they were going to pay their bills. In addition, many children suffered the death of a parent or close family member due to coronavirus.
As the pandemic raged across the world in 2020, the rate of mental health emergencies involving children and teens increased by 31 percent compared to the 2019 rate.
Between January, 2019 and May, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control investigated trends in emergency department visits involving suicide attempts by children and teens. They found that by May, 2020, the number of visits from kids between 12 and 17 years old began to increase significantly, especially among girls of this age. By the end of March, 2021, the average weekly emergency department visits for suicide attempts among teen girls were nearly 51 percent higher compared to March, 2019.
While the risk of suicide among adolescent boys also increased slightly compared to March, 2019, psychologists state that the stigma regarding suicide is more pervasive among boys and, unfortunately, their fathers. Consequently, many suicide attempts by adolescent boys may not have received medical attention.
Why Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Created a Pandemic of Suicide Among Children and Teens?
From infancy to late adolescence, the human central nervous system is considered within a “developmental window” that reacts intensely to stressful situations. During this critical period of CNS development, short-term and long-term stressors may cause behavioral, cognitive and/or psychological damage to teenagers.
How stressful events impact individual adolescents also depends heavily on the teen’s genetics, family support, capacity for resilience and prior life events.
With the pandemic now ongoing for nearly two years, viable information about COVID and teens is emerging that indicates the following:
- Children and adolescents who transitioned to remote learning or were quarantined due to being infected with coronavirus reported “high prevalence of fear” and anxiety about being socially isolated from peers and social events. In other words, despite the prevalence of technology and social media, teens thrive in a world that is better balanced between digital and physical interactions with their peers.
- Teens worry just as much about financial difficulties as their parents.
- More parents of teens who attended school virtually reported their kids experiencing worsening emotional and mental health than parents of teens who did not have to transition to remote learning.
- There is evidence to suggest that teenagers who were required to wear face masks versus those teens who did not, struggled more from low self-esteem.
- Parents of children as young as six years old reported their child showing signs of anxiety, depression and irritability because of pandemic-related disruptions to routines.
- Troubled teens who previously had academic and/or mental health problems are bearing the brunt of the pandemic–rates of suicide thoughts and teenager suicide are higher in at-risk teens.
Exacerbating the psychological stress of the pandemic is the fact that remote learning means students no longer have immediate access to mental health services. In many cases, the only mental health assistance children and students receive comes from school counselors working exclusively for a particular school.
Remote learning also impacted children because it forced them to remain at home 24/7. This meant that thousands of at-risk youth spent even more time in a dysfunctional home where physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse occurs regularly. Furthermore, stay at home orders prevented teens from engaging in healthy outlets and receiving empathy and support from their peers.
What are the Warning Signs of Suicidal Ideation in Adolescent Girls and Boys?
Since teenagers are often moody, secretive and notoriously dismissive of parental advice, it can be difficult for parents to know if they should be worried about their teen’s behavior.
If a child does exhibit behavior that causes a parent to wonder if their child is thinking about suicide, that parent should take action on their suspicions by having a serious, open discussion with the child.
Some teenagers are more at risk for suicide ideation and/or suicide attempts due to certain risk factors. These factors may increase or decrease over time, depending on the age, sociocultural influences, gender and home environment of the teen:
- Impulsivity/poor decision making
- Substance abuse
- Death of a parent or close friend
- Family history of suicide, drug addiction and/or mental illness
- Being the victim of physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- History of prior suicide ideation or suicide attempts
- Having access to guns in the home
- Being bullied at home or school
Warning signs that may indicate a teen is having suicidal thoughts include:
- Acting more anxious and depressed than usual (alternately, some teens contemplating suicide may seem neither happy or sad)
- Spending hours alone in their room/refusing to talk to anyone
- Increasing episodes of irrational anger and sudden mood swings
- Having academic problems where minimal or no problems previously existed
- Running away from home but not explaining clearly why they ran away from home
- Changes in sleeping and eating habits (sleeping over 12 hours every day, binge-eating or not eating enough)
- Appearing distracted, unfocused or preoccupied with their thoughts
- Talking about dying, death/posting unusually morbid posts on social media accounts
- Complaining of frequent headaches, stomachaches, nausea and fatigue
- Giving possessions away to friends or siblings without explanation
Parents should know that these warning signs apply mostly to teens who have not previously shown these behaviors. Also, physical complaints should be checked by a physician to rule out real health issues that need professionally addressed.
PTSD, COVID and Teens
Although the pandemic is less than two years old, there is already some research indicating that lockdowns, quarantines, the wearing of face masks, and remote learning may be causing teens to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although the pandemic is less than two years old, there is already some research indicating that lockdowns, quarantines, the wearing of face masks, and remote learning may be causing teens to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since individual perceptions and reactions to severe life disruptions vary widely, signs of possible PTSD in teens will also vary in type and intensity.
In addition to major depression and suicidal ideation, common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Being in a constant state of hyper-alertness or hypervigilance
- Having frequent nightmares, insomnia or night terrors
- Feeling depersonalized, emotionally numb and unable to experience enjoyment
- Feeling alienated from family, peers and the world, in general
- Disinterest in maintaining peer relationships
- Experiencing panic attacks when attempting to leave the home (agoraphobia)
What Should Parents Do If They Suspect Their Teen is Thinking about Suicide?
Parents are often reluctant to approach a child who seems to be severely depressed and possibly contemplating suicide. What if their child isn’t really suicidal and a parent falsely accuses them of wanting to commit suicide?
Other reasons why parents may attribute their suspicions to typical adolescent moodiness include not wanting to come across as an overprotective parent and being afraid of putting suicidal thoughts in their child’s head when none actually existed.
What about teens who commit suicide but never show any warning signs of suicide ideation? That is another issue many parents have, unfortunately, had to deal with during the pandemic.
Take the heartbreaking case of two parents suffering the loss of a child to suicide: Paige and Lee Murray and Storm Stenvold and Kerri Countess. Both had teenage sons who did not show signs of anxiety, depression or mental distress before their suicides. Thirteen-year-old Alex Murray loved to fish, ski and camp. He was a mostly straight A student who enjoyed reading, watching movies and playing video games. Caleb Stenvold was 14 and a freshman in high school. He excelled academically and was enrolled in his school’s program for gifted students. Neither Caleb nor Alex had been bullied at school.
After Caleb’s suicide, Storm and Kerri search frantically for answers to why Caleb chose to end his life. The only thing they could find was that Caleb had done an online search about suicide the day before he hanged himself. Alex’s parents could find nothing that would suggest Alex was thinking about suicide.
Now working as activists to help other parents learn about what can be done to reduce teen suicide rates, both the Murrays and Stenvold/Countess are telling parents: “Don’t think your child is too young or invulnerable to thinking about hurting themselves. You may think you’ve got plenty of time to talk to them, but you can never go back”.
Approaching a Child Who May Be Thinking About Suicide
There will come a time as a parent where it will be necessary to have an uncomfortable or challenging conversation. The critical element of communication that will be necessary at such a time is to have already established good rapport. Under such conditions, a teenager would be more apt to opening up about thoughts of suicide or just be more willing to listen to the guidance from their parent(s).
When a parent decides to talk to their child about being possibly suicidal, they should always talk to the child in a calm, empathetic, no accusatory tone. Take time to prepare what you are going to say and how you will react if your child responds aggressively. Begin the discussion by telling your child you love them and genuinely care about their well-being. Let them know how important their happiness is to you and that you will do everything you can to help them manage problems they are having and can’t solve themselves.
Teens need to believe a parent isn’t “out to get them” and won’t do something drastic that would disrupt their lives. Parents should convey compassion and acceptance of their child’s emotions. They should gently but firmly suggest counseling for their child as well as allow the child to offer their own suggestions for getting help.
Parents who suspect their teen is having suicidal thoughts should immediately remove all guns and ammunition from the home. Unless the parent has a heavy-duty, secure gun safe that cannot be accessed by anyone except the parent, no guns ( including BB guns), swords or other dangerous weaponry should be kept in the home. Alcohol and over the counter and prescription medications should not be accessible by the teen as well.
Social Media, COVID and Teens
In the decades prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many teens in the U.S were already coping with depression, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other serious mental health issues. A study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that from 2018 to 2019, eight percent of kids between the ages of three and 17 had anxiety disorder while four percent suffered depressive disorders. Over five million children (nine percent) were diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.
When the pandemic forced lockdowns and closed schools across the country, kids started relying more on social media to communicate with peers. Now, evidence is accumulating that increased social media use may be contributing to the rise of teenage suicide. The Canadian Medical Association Journal recently published analysis of longitudinal and cross-sectional data that implicates social media and smart phone use in the significant increase in youth suicide, mental distress and self-injurious behaviors.
The analysis also states that social media “can negatively impact the way teens view themselves in comparison to peers and/or celebrities. Social media sites like Instagram and Facebook can also detrimentally affect personal relationships due to cyberbullying, receiving negative comments on posts (especially pictures) and experiencing generally negative interactions with peers they have never met.
Additionally, social media harbors certain groups that normalize and promote suicide ideation, attempting suicide and other forms of self-harm. For example, a Japanese social media message board published a post claiming a person can commit suicide successfully by inhaling hydrogen sulfide gas. Within several days of this post appearing, 208 teens and young adults successfully killed themselves using this specific gas.
What Treatments and Therapies are Available to Help Children with Suicidal Thoughts?
A crisis intervention is the standard treatment for kids and adults who are thinking about suicide. Traditional therapeutic counseling differs from crisis counseling because crisis counseling focuses solely on strategies that can be quickly learned by the person in a crisis and adopted for use in the short term. In some cases, a crisis intervention specialist may suggest overnight hospitalization for teens they think are at risk of attempting suicide.
Crisis counseling for suicidal teens typically lasts about an hour and involves a counselor employing psychotherapeutic techniques to defuse the situation. Parents are allowed to remain with their child during a crisis intervention unless, for some reason, the child doesn’t want the parent to be there. Active listening, cognitive behavioral therapy, or ventilation and validation approaches are a few of the techniques crisis counselors employ to communicate effectively with suicidal teens. Ventilation and validation is the process of encouraging a child to talk about why they feel the way they do (ventilation) for as long as they want to talk about it (validation).
After the crisis intervention, troubled teens should attend regular counseling sessions. Therapists help guide teens through the difficult process of understanding and assimilating traumatic events that typically lead to the teen considering suicide.
Resources for Parents of Suicidal Teens
Parents who are directly confronted with a child who is threatening suicide should call 911 immediately. This is especially applicable to situations where a child is holding a knife, screwdriver or other object with which they could hurt themselves. When a parent suspects their child may be suicidal but the child hasn’t threatened to commit suicide, they should call a trusted family doctor or local suicide hotline, if available.
Each state funds multiple suicide hotlines for parents and teenagers. To find your state’s suicide hotline, visit Suicide.org. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a federally supported service that is available 24/7 from anywhere in the U.S. The number is 1-800-273-8255.
Parents can also text “HELLO” to 741741 and speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 741741. The website for the NSPL is https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
Finally, it may be necessary to seek help from a team of professionals who are equipped with the skills, knowledge, and the safe environment to counter the effects of a suicidal teenager. A residential treatment center is a great option for such an instance and can provide your teenager who is struggling with suicidal intentions to receive the professional support needed in order to heal and overcome such a condition. For more information on how troubledteens.com may be able to help your teen who is struggling with suicidal thoughts or maybe even have attempted suicide but failed, please Contact Us at: 844-207-8307.