Why Is Suicide on the Rise Among Middle Schoolers?

Adolescence is a tumultuous time, with many changes happening at once. Between 2007 and 2014, the suicide rate among U.S. middle school students doubled.

The pressure on kids today is unfathomable. Between extracurricular activities and academic achievement, organized athletics and outward appearance, the burden to be the best weighs heavy on most young minds.

That’s to say nothing of the pressure to both have and maintain an active social media presence. The associated expectations create a culture of cattiness and cruelty. Insecure kids with overactive imaginations operate under the belief that their peers must have perfect lives. They live in a state of fear about what others must think of them. They believe they must project a certain image at all costs because, at the heart of this generation’s culture, individuality is admonished and childhood must be discarded as soon as possible.    

These ruminations, a form of maladaptive coping itself, perpetuates negative feelings and creates an environment wherein more destructive behavior may occur. Depression, anxiety, self-harming, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and suicide are just some of the maladaptive coping mechanisms young adults may turn to in response to external pressures. 

Adolescence is a naturally tumultuous time, with many changes happening at once. Highly volatile emotions combined with physical, psychological, and social changes can make even a minor social slight feel like life and death to an individual – so much so that they may choose to end their lives by suicide. 

According to a recent CDC report, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24. Each year, almost 5,000 teens and young adults die by suicide.

It gets more dire for middle schoolers, specifically: between 2007 and 2014, the suicide rate among U.S. middle school students doubled, exceeding for the first time the frequency of kids (aged 10 to 14) who died in car accidents.

In 2014, about 1.7 per 100,000 girls in this age group died by suicide. That’s increased from one out of every 200,000 in 1999. 

American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of suicides, but the largest change in female adolescent suicides was for non-Hispanic white females (aged 10-14 years).  That figure more than tripled from 0.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.5 in 2014.

On average, the number of adolescent suicide attempts amounts to around 575,000 each year.  Why are so many children trying to take their lives and succeeding?

Some causative theories are as follows:

Social media

Some studies suggest we should look at internet usage rates to assess which children are most at risk. The advent of Smartphones, filters, and “followers” easily perpetuate a “clique-mentality.” Exclusivity is prized above all else. Kids are inevitably left out and thus filled with a deep sense of rejection. The superficiality of the internet spills over into real life, and adolescents have trouble distinguishing their online presence from reality, remaining in a state of subconscious despair.    

Cyberbullying

With the anonymity of the internet, kids are becoming more brazen with their bullying. They can hurl insults or start rumors instantly, easily, and with little or no repercussions to their own reputation. They can literally abuse another student 24/7 as opposed to being limited to the hours in a school day.

If a person being bullied happens to be predisposed to depression, anxiety, or any other psychological stressor, the emotional fallout could be exponentially worse, and thus, be a causative factor in suicide.         

The normalization of self-harm and suicide

In one study, about 60 percent of adolescents said that they had researched suicide online. Almost three-quarters of those who engaged in self-harm also said they had researched it online.

Internet “support forums” that discuss self-harm may actually hurt more than they help. Experts say that they may make self-harm (i.e. cutting, burning) seem like normal, acceptable, even glamorous, behavior. It’s been reported that approximately 10 percent of forum posts addressed methods to complete self-harm and even how to hide the evidence of it. While self-harm is not intended to be lethal, in severe cases it may lead to true suicide attempts by lowering inhibitions to actual suicidal thoughts and behaviors. 

Furthermore, researchers have found “clusters” of adolescent suicides to possibly be related to the media exposure and social discussion of other suicides.

Early-onset puberty

Another contributing factor to the higher suicide rate is an earlier age for the start of puberty.  For any individual, going through puberty is an emotional roller coaster. Adding in other factors, such as social or academic pressure, could create a high-stress, emotionally-charged environment.

It’s important to note, however, that psychiatric disorders like anxiety or depression usually begin around the onset of puberty. Therefore, earlier puberty could mean an earlier onset of psychiatric illness for those individuals predisposed, leading to a higher risk for suicide at a younger age.

Untreated depression or other mental illness

Individuals with an untreated psychiatric illness have an increased risk for suicide. A person may become triggered by an instigating event in their lives, feeling as though their current situation or problem, although temporary, is a permanent one. This may prompt suicidal thoughts and behavior. 

In particular, individuals with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder have an increased risk for suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Other factors

Other variables, such as family history, substance abuse, medical conditions, and home environment are all considered factors of influence. The presence of firearms in the home has also been associated with increased risk.

The fact is, such malleable minds are looking for direction. The time to talk to students in crisis is now. Ten to 14 years old is a pivotal age. Online bullying is at an all-time high. People have never felt more isolated, alone, or inferior. Poor body image, self-esteem, and lack of personal sense of identity can and should be addressed. 

Words are powerful. They don’t always have to cause pain. They can provide guidance and help. 

Warning signs of suicide

They include, but are not limited to:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Talking about feeling trapped
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Behaving recklessly
  • Changes in mood, diet, or sleeping patterns
  • Becoming socially isolated
  • Decline in school performance
  • Giving away belongings
  • Poems, essays, and drawings that refer to death
  • Dramatic change in appearance
  • Sense of guilt, shame, or rejection
  • Talking about feeling unbearable pain, or feeling like a burden to others

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

OR Text “START” to 741-741

How to help

Ask and listen

Ask at-risk individuals if they are considering suicide. If they have a plan, remove the lethal means. Listen and be available to them.

Trust your gut

If a situation is serious, call for help.

Get them help

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Follow-up and stay in touch

Follow-up with individuals after the crisis or after being discharged.