Psych Services: Alarming facts about teen – and adult – suicide rates

Lisa Garmezy

More young teens commit suicide than die in car accidents. In 2014 a shocking 425 kids aged 10-14 killed themselves while 384 died in car crashes. Auto safety is improving.

When it comes to preventing teen suicide, the current TV hit “13 Reasons Why,” takes us in the wrong direction.

The Netflix drama introduces us to the late Hannah Baker, who moved to a new town as a high school freshman and got an undeserved reputation as a slut. On 13 cassette tapes, she describes the bullying, the trauma and the rape. Before slitting her wrists, she mails a set of tapes to the first name on a list of people who contributed to death. If each recipient doesn’t pass the tapes on to the next perpetrator, a friend will make a second set public. Everyone’s crimes will be exposed.

It’s clever, it’s elaborate, and that’s the problem—the viewer is wowed by the beautiful author of the perfect revenge. Kids don’t need this kind of role model.

Sorry, Selena

 My twin sons, 28, binge-watched the show like gleeful highway rubberneckers. I joined them for part of it, including the climactic death scene, and pushed my way through the novel. Executive producer Selena Gomez, who has struggled with depression herself, hoped to spark a helpful discussion of adolescent suicide. I doubt the show had a net positive impact.

In the book, Hannah is rumored to have taken pills, but her final acts are off-stage.  In the Netflix version, she runs a bath, uses a razor to cut her wrists the long way, and blood spurts. It’s intense.

No matter what message the show meant to send, some audience members will “learn” that suicide isn’t terribly painful and doesn’t take too long. Netflix broke the first rule of responsible journalism on this topic—never teach the audience how it’s done.

The bathtub scene is deliberately stark and unglamorous, but overall, Hannah’s behavior and its consequences are chillingly attractive. After she’s gone, fellow students and the clueless school counselor who heard the tapes are filled with remorse. Fellow students decorate her locker.

That’s realistic. On social media and in schools, outpourings of sympathy and kindness are offered posthumously to teen victims of suicide. Another “lesson learned” from the series may be, “if you kill yourself, you’ll not only end your suffering but also become the most popular kid in school.” I’m quoting a Newsweek article about a 2016 Colorado Springs suicide cluster.

A Matter of Taste?

My kids defended “13 Reasons.” Teens today aren’t squeamish, they said, and similar stuff can be found on YouTube at any time. Awareness is important.

Let’s break it down. Media depictions of suicide can boost or lower suicide rates. After Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, more women killed themselves. But after Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, the careful publicizing of warning signs, suicide hotlines and venues for mental health treatment led to a decline in suicide.

Like adults, teens who commit suicide usually show multiple risk factors. Those who take their own lives usually have, among other concerns, a history of depression or other mental illness, previous suicide attempts, substance abuse problems, access to weapons and exposure to suicide—usually, but not always meaning a family history of suicide. You might see school failure in kids.

Then, a straw breaks the camel’s back, and thoughts become action. Teens are impulsive creatures with underdeveloped brains and scant ability to put things in perspective. A completed suicide can be triggered by the accidental death of another student, a romantic break-up, family problems, or even a media event.

Clusters and Contagion

Suicide clusters among young people are well documented, including at the college level and in military units (e.g., the 2nd Battalion 7th Marine Regiment). Approximately three percent of adolescent suicides are preceded by another teen’s suicide. The Colorado Springs cluster involved a total of 13 teen suicides in one county in a 10-month period.

Clusters emerge when cultural norms shift, lowering inhibitions so that previously taboo behavior becomes acceptable. Adolescents’ extreme sensitivity to peer behavior, attitudes and approval makes them more vulnerable to this morbid form of influence. The contagion is fueled by survivors’ fresh grief.

Eighteen-year-old Taylor Gilpin’s death last year was part of a suicide cluster at New York City’s prestigious Columbia University: five students died between September 2016 and February 2017. The valedictorian of a Brookfield, Missouri class of only 73 students felt overwhelmed at Columbia, and went home. The day he died, Taylor and his parents visited the public college an hour away. He said he’d enroll. Skipping dinner, he left for the basement to charge his phone. Later, when Taylor’s father wanted company on a trip to Walmart, he found his son hanging by a belt. No fictional drama can eclipse that horror.

Note that suffocation/hanging is trending up as a method. Its greater lethality, compared to taking available pills, seems partially responsible for a major upswing in female suicide rates. The growth is probably tied also to females’ higher use of the social media that magnify and broadcast their perceived failures. Boys’ suicides in the 10-14 age group showed a 37 percent increase between 1995 and 2014, while girls’ suicides tripled in the same period.

The Storm around You

Suicide contagion among adults, although real, is a weaker phenomenon. It occurs in substations or military units where the strong bonds among group members enhance the significance of other members’ behavior. Middle-aged police officers are in a group with rising suicide rates already. The economy, divorce and the addiction epidemic have taken a toll.

When (not if) someone is contemplating suicide, listen nonjudgmentally. Assure him or her that things can get better—not that things aren’t so bad, which shows you don’t understand. Get the person professional help. Care for yourself by spending time with people who cherish life and value its opportunities.

Without question, the stories and opinions we let into our lives impact us all. A painting on a gallery wall can be as bold and edgy as the artist wants, but “13 Reasons” invaded teens’ bedrooms, endangering our sons and daughters.

For more information see the October 2016 Newsweek article, “Teen Suicide is Contagious,” available online, or visit the websites of the Jason Foundation and the National Association of School Psychologists.

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Dr. Garmezy welcomes feedback at lisagarmezy@gmail.com.