Mental health is front and center in American society due in part to the well-documented struggle several athletes have experienced in recent months. Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps have helped to destigmatize mental health challenges and helped countless youth and adults seek mental health treatment. Recent studies report that one in three American adults are suffering from pandemic-related depression and anxiety; and low-income, rural, and ethnic and racial minority populations are bearing an undue burden, reporting a 25 percent increase in psychological distress when compared to pre-pandemic years.
Young people are not immune to the distress suffered by their parents and adult caregivers. Yet too many youths (and adults) continue to suffer in silence and do not receive the help that could make a difference in their mental health. Youth and young adults are particularly vulnerable given how the developing adolescent brain is working overtime to develop decision-making, self-control, and other executive functioning processes. Overlay the stress, trauma, and fear they are experiencing during the global pandemic, it is not surprising that mental health emergencies increased by 31 percent.
One of the more troubling mental health issues experienced by youth in recent months is the dramatic increase in suicide. Youth suicide, the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24 before the pandemic, is rising as a result of the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that during the pandemic, suspected suicide attempts increased among teens of both genders; however, suicide attempts among girls rose nearly 51 percent during winter 2021. Emergency room visit data also revealed that suspected suicide attempts increased as the pandemic wore on, adding more incentive to curb the spread across the country.
Sadly, like so many other social issues, youth of color are experiencing serious mental health issues disproportionate to their white peers. Suicide among Black youth is increasing faster than any other age group, as reported by the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Between 1991 and 2017, the suicide rate among Black teens rose by 122 percent. Furthermore, the CDC reports that the rate of suicide attempts by Black teens increased by 73 percent from 1991 to 2017, while suicide attempts by their White peers decreased during the same period. Black girls and young women seem at particular risk for suicide and suicide attempts leaving communities wanting for effective interventions to interrupt the tragic loss of life. Philanthropic organizations have made a commitment to invest $1 billion over ten years to ensure that Black girls and young women have every opportunity to live free of violence, abuse, trauma, and other challenges that hinder their ability to thrive.
Even before the pandemic, Native American youth were committing suicide at twice the rate of their White peers. During the pandemic, social isolation, crippling poverty and economic stress, and loss of life have exacerbated the stressors that increase their risk for suicide. To help tribal leaders, mental health leaders, and youth development professionals prevent and intervene, The Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins University has created CULTURE FORWARD: A Strengths and Culture Based Tool to Protect our Native Youth from Suicide. Developed in consultation with tribal Elders and leaders, Native youth, two-spirit leaders, and other Native Americans with lived expertise, the tool includes actionable steps that can be implemented by community leaders throughout Indian Country.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth are also at greater risk for suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers. In a 2021 Trevor Project survey, 42 percent of respondents said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. For transgender and nonbinary youth, it was more than half. Among the survey respondents, 12 percent of white youth attempted suicide compared to 31 percent of Native American youth, 21 percent of Black youth, 21 percent of multiracial youth, 18 percent of Latinx youth, and 12 percent of Asian-Pacific Islander youth. The pandemic increased their risk as more than 80 percent of LGBTQ youth reported that the pandemic made their living situation even more stressful.
While the previous examples highlight suicide and suicide ideation among Black and Native American youth and LGBTQ youth, too many other youth remain at risk. Mental Health America reveals in their 2022 report, The State of Mental Health In America, that 10.6 percent—more than 2.5 million—young people report severe major depression. Unfortunately, severe major depression also places one at increased risk of suicide and suicide ideation.
To combat the troubling trend of youth suicide among young people in general, and youth marginalized by systemic inequities specifically, consider the following steps you can take today.
- Understand the scope and nature of youth suicide in your community. The National Academies of Science’s The Promise of Adolescence Report reminds us that lack of connection is a primary risk factor for poor mental health outcomes in teens. Take the time to understand how to recognize the other risk factors of suicide. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has a detailed guide to help you understand the scope of the problem and identifies sources for current data.
- Update your understanding of the role of educators and youth workers to support youth experiencing mental health issues. The U.S. Department of Education recently published a guide, Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Students at Risk of Self-Harm in the Era of COVID-19. This resource addresses the responsibilities of youth workers under the law; specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that require schools and programs to provide services and support young people facing anxiety or depression—risk factors that could lead to suicide ideation or suicide.
- Work to increase access to mental health services for youth. It is still too difficult for adolescents to receive mental health services. Mental Health America reports that even in states with the most access to mental health services, only 27 percent of young people experiencing severe depression receive treatment; and that number decreases to only 12 percent in states with the least access to care. Join efforts by Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and The Trevor Project to increase access to mental health services in schools and community-based settings.
- Include social emotional learning as a priority in return to school plans. The National Association of School Psychologists has developed a Comprehensive School Suicide Prevention in a Time of Distance Learning that provides guidance and resources, such as a Virtual Suicide Assessment Checklist, for schools still grappling with rolling COVID-related closures and distance learning.
Additional Related Resources
Youth suicide is a challenge that requires multiple systems to collaborate and provide support to youth at risk. Policymakers, researchers, policy influencers, youth, agency leaders, youth development practitioners, educators, and the faith-community all have a role in preventing youth suicide. Please let AYPF know at firstname.lastname@example.org what you are doing to support youth at risk of suicide and share any resources you have that can be deployed now to reduce youth suicide.