The Increased Risk of Suicide Among Teens
Last Monday, the Center for Disease Control released the findings of their Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The CDC conducts this report every other year, with this year’s report reporting on data collected from 2011 to 2021. This survey includes information on the issues adolescents in our culture face, including sexual behavior, substance use, experiencing violence, mental health and thoughts of suicide.
The report made headlines in many significant news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Why? Because of the astonishing increase in the risk of suicide among teenagers, particularly, teenage girls.
Here are some of the highlights contained in the CDC’s report:
- 30% of female high school students have seriously considered suicide in the past year.
- 14% of male high school students have also considered suicide.
- 29% of participants said they felt poor mental health in the past month
- 42% said they experienced “persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness” in the past year.
These numbers only tell half of the story. The percentage of teen females who felt those persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness increased from 36% in 2011 to 57% in 2021 (for reference, in high school males this also increased, but not nearly as much: from 21% to 29% in the same time period).
Additionally, nearly one in three teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide. These issues are not isolated to an individual group. This means these issues are problematic across our society as a whole. Why is this happening? If we’re going to help young people, we need to consider the heart of the issues at hand.
The Pressures of Being a Teen
First, we have to consider the tumultuous time of life that is the teenage years. One of my daughter’s favorite books is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. In this story, a caterpillar spends a week of its life eating an exorbitant amount of food. By the end of the week, the caterpillar is no longer small or hungry, and begins to build a cocoon where it later emerges as a butterfly that is stronger and more beautiful than ever before.
In some ways this story can be symbolic of the teenage years (for more reasons than one, I guess—seeing how much food the caterpillar ate!). In this stage of life, teens are under immense pressure from nearly every direction. As teenagers who are barely allowed to drive, young people feel the need to decide what they want to do for the rest of their life! Then, they feel the pressure to maintain the academic performance, extracurricular performance, and community service hours to receive admission into college. In the background of it all is a raging sea of hormones causing mood swings and significant changes within the body. It all makes for a tumultuous time in their lives.
Perspective is important. These years feature intense pressure because these are the years that set the trajectory for who they will become. Some of the decisions students face are massive, paving the way for what lies ahead. They are in a cocoon of pressure, with the result potentially being the beautiful butterfly at the end. Under the guidance of parents and caring guardians, these tense years can be formative. But, they can also be too intense, leading to despair among teens.
The Rise of the Smart Phone
The CDC’s survey shows a statistical jump in the increase of depression and suicide around the same time the smartphone and social media became nearly universal. In iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy– and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood– and What That Means for the Rest of Us, sociologist Jean Twenge demonstrates a strong correlation between the use of the smart phone with increased depression and loss of joy.
Certainly, there are other factors at play, but this correlation cannot be ignored. Instagram launched in October of 2010, rising to prominence in 2012. Most young people didn’t have a smart phone until then, with this current generation of young people growing up in a world where nearly everyone has one. Teens are now coming of age in a world saturated with social media.
In this study, the CDC’s data affirms Dr. Twenge’s findings. We have to recognize the connection between mental health and smart devices. While this correlation is true of every teenager, one of the concerning things about this research is the disproportionate effect this has on teenage girls. Sarah Toy, of the Wall Street Journal, noted this connection: “Girls are particularly vulnerable to anxiety and depression, mental health experts say, given the higher rates of harassment and discrimination they face compared with boys. They also face career pressures, high beauty standards and the expectation of motherhood, they say.” Social media only amplifies these pressures. It displays a highlight reel of everyone’s lives, creating an impossible standard which young people feel like they need to reach.
One of the formative questions during these years is: “Who am I?” During the teenage years, young people are discovering what they like and dislike, their passions and things they want to pursue. This is true in nearly every aspect of their lives. It is a foundational reason why student ministries have a responsibility to come alongside of parents in helping teenagers make their faith in Christ their own.
This leads me to another finding in the survey. According to Chia-Yi Hou at the Hill, “A large proportion of youth who identify as LGBTQ+, nearly half at 45 percent, said they had considered suicide and 37 percent said they had made a suicide plan.” Those young people who are most uncertain in their identities—rejecting an understanding that God has made them as He has for a distinct, God-glorifying purpose—are most susceptible to depression and suicide. We cannot miss the epidemic within it.
There are two ways to interpret this data. These numbers could be driven by other people rejecting the chosen gender identity of a teenager (as a majority of media and culture would have us believe). But these numbers could also indicate that a rejection of God’s good design in gender and sexuality leads to decreased satisfaction in life and a loss of joy.
As Christians, we know the latter to be true according to God’s Word. This means a culture which declares freedom from gender and “traditional” sexuality, promising satisfaction only in becoming whoever we want to be is actually leading teenagers one step closer to depression and suicide.
What Can We Do?
Believers should look at this data and immediately ask themselves what they can do to save the lives of these teens. Dr. Twenge highlighted another, more surprising, trend in the teenagers of this generation: safety. This finding is yet another reflected in the CDC’s research. The number of teens using both alcohol and marijuana is trending downward. Additionally, the percentage of teenagers who have had sex, the number of teens sexually active, and the number of sexual partners teenagers have had are all trending down. Why? Because teens are recognizing some of the dangers that come as a result of these actions.
What can we do to provide safe spaces where teens can wrestle with the questions of identity and purpose? How can parents be more willing to have difficult conversations and listen to difficult answers from their kids? How can the church cultivate safe environments within their ministries, where students can hear the truth of the gospel—including the opportunity for a new identity in Christ and an invitation to walk in accordance with their God-given purpose?
Second, we need to embrace simplicity. We need to be willing to give teens perspective on these years, helping them understand what’s going on within themselves (both biologically and psychologically) and the difficulties society is imposing upon them. This simplicity goes hand in hand with safety. There needs to be a simple answer for where teens can go when they have questions or are depressed to the point of wanting to take their own life. They need to know they can always come home.
The solution to all of this is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Teenagers, particularly Christian teens, need to have a robust understanding of what it means to be “in Christ.” They need to understand who they are, as a member of the body of Christ, a saint, a co-heir of the inheritance purchased by his life, death, and resurrection, one made righteous by his blood, and all the other New Testament descriptions. To give students a deep understanding of these identities is to make it more difficult for students to have confusion regarding their identity and purpose.
The gospel reminds us that our purpose is to take this good news to all nations, beginning with those around us. We are made to point people to God and point others to him. When we step outside of this purpose, we find life to be lacking joy and ultimately dissatisfying. Students need to see that they have been made by Jesus and for Jesus (Colossians 1).
There’s no doubt that this news from the CDC report is overwhelming and deeply concerning. But I hope we also see this as an opportunity for the truth of the gospel to shine through. Teenagers are desperate for help. They’re searching for truth and hungry for something to help them make sense of the world. The question now turns to us: will we be those who respond by showing them those answers? Will we embrace this formative season, providing the necessary structure– a cocoon of truth– within which teenagers can wrestle with questions of purpose and identity, that they might emerge stronger and more capable than ever before?
Matt Hall is an NGU alum who has served as the Pastor of College and Youth at Mountain Creek since August, 2019.