A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics indicates that the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds has increased a startling 56% over the last decade. Suicide has become the second most common cause of death among teenagers and young adults.
"Pediatricians have indeed seen a huge increase in depression and anxiety in adolescents over the last few years," says Dr. Nita Shumaker, pediatrician. "I spend a lot of time talking to parents about lifestyle choices affecting mental health."
Most experts agree that no one knows for sure what exactly is causing this dramatic increase in teen suicide after such an extended time of stability. No question, the trend is extremely disturbing. Some are referring to this as a public health crisis and wondering why there is not more of an outcry for something to be done.
Part of the problem may be that no one is clear about what is causing this uptick. It could be technology, violent video games, television shows, bullying, not enough likes on Instagram posts, the ease in which someone can compare their life to their friend's highlight reel or who knows what else.
"It is clear that there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to teens and their mental health," Shumaker says. "I start early talking about letting electronics into the home. It is a portal for both good and evil to enter into children's lives. And electronics are really not the problem. It's the all-access pass that so many children have to technology that is the problem."
Another issue Shumaker notes is sleep deprivation.
"Sleep deprivation is a torture technique and a well-documented trigger for anxiety and depression," Shumaker says. "Not getting enough sleep leads to more impulsive behavior as well as poor performance in school."
The current recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that children and adolescents have no electronics in the bedroom.
"Allowing electronics in the bedroom means that adolescents spend an enormous amount of time alone, unsupervised and on the internet," Shumaker says. "This means that fundamentally they are separated from the family, which I believe is another potential cause of depression and anxiety. Having electronics in the bedroom means parents don't put their kids to bed anymore — their electronics do.
"We are missing such valuable time with our children, and their mental health is suffering from it. We as a culture are abandoning our children to the internet, and it is literally killing them."
What can we do to help our kids?
* Your presence matters. Practice what you are trying to teach. Be intentional about disconnecting from your phone and other technology, and actively engage with your kids.
* Set limits with technology use, including amount of time on screens and where technology lives in your home. Don't expect your children to thank you for not letting them use technology all the time.
* Be vigilant about making sure they get enough rest, and seriously limit distractions that could keep them awake. Help them make healthy food and exercise choices, as these can impact other areas of life.
* Talk with them about the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety, and discuss ways to manage them so they are educated not only for themselves but also for their friends. Contrary to what some believe, talking about these symptoms or the topic of suicide does not increase the risk of suicide.
* Make them aware of helpful resources both locally and nationally. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Also, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's website, aacap.org, has a Suicide Resource Center with a host of resources for teens and families.
* Give your teen household responsibilities. Some parents are hesitant to do this, believing their teen already has so much on their plate. Including teens in household chores helps them feel connected, and it teaches them responsibility as well as how to manage their time.
* Create space for your family to do things together on a regular basis. Make sure they are getting helpful information from you and not just taking their cues from their friends.
Our children are living in a complicated world for sure. Although no one can definitively say why there is such an increase in suicide among our young people, we cannot afford to sacrifice the mental health or lives of our children, which means we must be intentional in our efforts to help them. Whether they will admit it or not, they are counting on our guidance to navigate this time in their lives.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.