During September, National Suicide Prevention month, mental health organizations and individuals across the United States make a concerted effort to raise awareness of suicide prevention.
According to statistics released by the Center for Disease Control in June, the national suicide rate increased by 25.4 percent between 2007 and 2016. During that time, Illinois has seen a 22.8 percent increase in its suicide rate. Contributing factors to suicide can include preexisting mental health conditions, relationship problems, substance use, legal problems, loss of housing, physical health issues, job problems and financial trouble.
According to 2016 statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, adults between the ages of 45 and 54 accounted for the highest rate of national suicide deaths with 19.72 per 100,000 people. Adults over 85 accounted for 18.98 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.
A group that seems increasingly at risk appears to be young adults between the ages of 15 and 24. In 2016, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported the national suicide rate for this group had steadily risen from 9.7 per 100,000 to 13.15.
“Teens are much more likely now than they were just five years ago, or seven years ago, to say that they are anxious and depressed and thinking about suicide,” said Jean Twenge, San Diego State University psychologist, in a 2017 interview with CBS Evening News.
According to Beth Lawrence, president of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Tri-County Illinois, young people are at risk for suicidal thoughts or actions because most mental health problems materialize between the ages of 14 and 25.
“Seventy-five percent of mental health conditions show up during that time frame,” she said. “So, untreated mental health issues are part of the problem. A lot of times, people don’t realize that young people are having trouble. Sometimes, the young people themselves don’t know they’re having trouble. They just know something isn’t right.”
Tricia Larson, director of Outpatient Clinical Services at Tazwood Center for Wellness in Pekin, noted that the transition from adolescence to adulthood is an especially trying time in a person’s life.
“There are a lot of stressors young adults are up against,” she said. “Typical life changes that happen can be very hard to cope with. There are a lot of risk factors among that age group, like fear of isolation, life changes like transitioning from school to the work force or from high school to college, and substance use.”
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, identified heavy social media use, bullying, economic burdens, family issues and exposure to violence as risk factors for conditions like depression in young people, which can lead to suicidal behavior.
“People often think that teens can’t get depressed or anxious, but they can. People also often think that it is ‘just normal teen angst,’” said Reidenberg in a 2017 interview with The Huffington Post. “While the teen brain is still developing, teens do struggle with genuine mental illnesses, and they need to be properly evaluated and treated.”
In a 2017 article for The Atlantic, Twenge cites cyberbullying, fear and anxiety of being left out, and sleep deprivation tied to constant smartphone use as factors affecting teens’ mental health and well-being. She focused on a connection between the rising popularity of social smartphones and the rising rates of suicide and depression among young people.
“Theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen,” she wrote in the 2017 article. “The impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans.”
Twenge said it is not an exaggeration to say that teens and young adults are on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of the crisis is traceable to social media and phones.
Sara Sparkman, communications director for the Tazewell County Health Department, concurred with Twenge’s assessment that social media and smartphones can exacerbate social anxiety and fear of exclusion while providing bullies with bully pulpits.
“There’s good and bad to everything, and unfortunately, social media is no exception,” said Sparkman. “Social media has opened up opportunities for sharing information, but it’s also opened up opportunities for cyberbullying.”
Warning signs that a person is suffering from a mental condition or is contemplating suicide do not tend to differ according to age groups. According to Lawrence, warning signs include feeling depressed for more than two weeks at a stretch; fatigue; lack of motivation; talking about or making plans to commit suicide; engaging in risky behavior; feelings of overwhelming fear; vomiting, using laxatives or not eating to lose weight; severe mood swings; substance abuse; difficulty concentrating; and drastic changes in personality or sleeping habits.
“NAMI has a program called Ending the Silence that’s available to schools or church groups,” Lawrence said. “It’s put together by high school kids who talk to other high school kids when they see any kind of mental illness or depression or signs of suicide. They encourage their peers to speak out and get help.”
The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) a Chicago-based group that provides hope, help, support and education to improve the lives of people with mood disorders, believes that peer support is a valuable suicide prevention resource. According to an article on the DBSA website, peer support reduces the incidence of suicide and enhances the quality of life for people who live with a range of mental health conditions.
According to Erica Mutchler, Tazewell County Health Department Emergency Preparedness coordinator, the first step in coping with a mental health condition is admitting that a problem exists. That can be a difficult step to take because of the stigma that society often places in people with mental illness.
“There’s a perception that people with mental illness are not normal or not right,” Mutchler said. “We want to get rid of that stigma, so people understand that mental illness is no different from any other illness.”
Suicide prevention efforts often tend to focus on mental health, according to the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat. Ideally, she believes that prevention efforts should be broadened to focus on people without mental health conditions who are attempting to deal with life stresses like divorce or unemployment.
“Suicide is more than a mental health issue,” Schuchat said in a June media briefing. “We don’t think we can just leave this to the mental health system to manage.”
Suicide prevention resources begin with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Illinois Department of Public Health at 217-558-4081. Local resources include NAMI Tri-County Illinois at 309-693-0541, the Tazwood Center for Wellness Emergency Response Service at 309-347-1148, and the Tazewell County Health Department at 309-925-5511 or 309-303-1375. Troubled teens can contact the Peoria-based peer support group Teens Need Teens at 309-637-8336.