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Confronting the soaring suicide rate among America’s young people

All of us — health care providers, teachers, bosses, neighbors, friends and family members — have a role to play in reversing this alarming trend.

Young people are experiencing record-high rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. A soaring suicide rate is the worst evidence of the crisis.
Young people are experiencing record-high rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. A soaring suicide rate is the worst evidence of the crisis.
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Suicide rates among young people were frightening before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and experts warn those numbers are only getting worse.

The increase in suicides is the most disturbing sign of the mental health crisis affecting young people — especially young people of color — who are experiencing skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

Three national pediatric groups were so alarmed by the problem that this fall, they issued a statement calling it a national emergency.

Soon after, a new report by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy documented chilling statistics on suicide: Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among young people ages 10 to 24 increased by 57%, and early estimates show more than 6,600 suicides among this age group in 2020. The surgeon general’s 53-page report also notes emergency department visits in early 2021 for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019.

Learning to talk about it

Steve Moore knows the searing pain of suicide loss. His 19-year-old son Paul Shuman-Moore died while away at college in 2006, propelling Moore into a life of advocacy with the goal of sparing others from what he and his family have endured.

This time of year is especially difficult for those left behind — the families of the more than 40,000 people who commit suicide each year in America. After his son died, Moore and his wife had to learn how to talk about what had happened to people they didn’t know or hadn’t seen in a while, and holiday parties were particularly challenging.

“Holidays are a difficult time,” said Moore, a board member of the Illinois chapter of the American Federation for Suicide Prevention. “Those presents under the tree — you don’t have that for the particular person you’ve lost. … This time of year the loss becomes aggravated.”

At a recent grief support group organized by Catholic Charities’ LOSS (Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) program, Moore said attendees discussed what to say about their loved ones at social gatherings. It’s OK to share how you’re feeling, but it’s also all right to say little or nothing; there are no rules other than treating yourself kindly, he said.

For those interacting with someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, Moore advises being sensitive but also “willing to talk about the loss, and more importantly, the person who died. … Share positive memories.”

Experts say openly talking about suicide helps de-stigmatize it, and makes it easier for someone to get help. When young people hear from a peer who’s struggled with depression, it breaks down the stigma and gives them hope, said Peggy Kubert, senior director of education at Erika’s Lighthouse, which targets middle and high school students with its early identification and early intervention programs.

But as the surgeon general’s report points out, too many families lack adequate health insurance or access to affordable counseling and other treatment, including treatment for addiction that increases the risk of suicide. That’s a problem society must address, along with our nation’s far-too-easy access to guns, another risk factor.

As with most other societal problems, suicide is hitting Black and Brown communities the hardest. Suicide rates among Black children under age 13 have been increasing rapidly, with Black children nearly twice as likely to die by suicide than white children, the surgeon general’s report noted. Add that to the sobering statistic that nearly 100 — 97 — Black Cook County residents died by suicide in 2020, the highest total for a single year in more than a decade.

This alarming rise came as government officials fell short on their promise, made more than a year ago in response to a Sun-Times and Trace investigation, to improve suicide prevention efforts.

Suicide must be viewed as a public health epidemic, not a personal problem — or worse, something that just happens and can’t be prevented. All of us can contribute to that shift in mindset — whether we’re a health care provider, teacher, employer, neighbor, friend or family member — to help reverse this alarming trend.

Let’s not be afraid to talk about our mental health and show others, especially young people, that we care and want to help.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “hello” to 741741 if you or someone you know is in crisis.

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