America Is Facing a Teen Suicide Pandemic

September 8, 2020

Six months ago, we could not have imagined that our daily vocabulary would be filled with the p-word. And while perhaps we are getting tired of hearing the word pandemic, I can’t help but ask why we haven’t used it to bring urgency to confronting teen suicide. The race to find a cure to the COVID-19 pandemic certainly is front and center, but that same sense of urgency does not seem to be evident for the unsettling rise in teen suicide.

In the United States, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death—with more than 2,000 14- to 18-year-olds dying every year by suicide, and accounting for about one of every three injury-related deaths. That’s the equivalent of losing a large high school’s worth of teenagers to suicide, year after year. These numbers demand our attention.

New CDC data reveal that almost one in five teens across the nation have seriously considered attempting suicide. Picture a typical high school classroom of 25 students. About five of those students could be thinking about suicide.

Data come from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which has monitored trends in youth health behaviors since 1990. According to the new report, the numbers of students who have considered attempting suicide are even higher for students identifying as female, Black, or non-heterosexual. In addition, about one in six students have made a suicide plan and slightly more than one in 10 have attempted suicide.

These numbers are scary—and become even more alarming when we look at the data over time; trends suggest that we are facing a teen suicide pandemic. Over the past 20 years, suicide rates have skyrocketed by over 60 percent, with almost every suicide indicator and student population showing increasing trends.

Similar findings can be found as our teens continue to young adulthood. The Healthy Minds Study tracks student mental health in participating colleges and universities across the United States.

Results from the most recent winter/spring survey administration of over 55,000 students indicate that slightly more than one in 10 (14 percent) experienced suicidal ideation over the past year. More than half say they somewhat to strongly needed help for emotional or mental problems, yet 9 percent said they would not talk to anyone if they were experiencing serious emotional distress. In a lecture hall of 50 college students, this means that about seven of them may have considered suicide this past year, and five of them would not talk to anyone about their distress.

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