The past 18 months have been challenging for kids and teens. News outlets report a “pandemic within a pandemic” to describe surging youth mental health crises. Several factors contribute to this trend — from anxiety about the pandemic, to isolation, to stressful family dynamics.
This disturbing uptick doesn’t begin or end with the COVID-19 pandemic. A CDC report released in September 2020 announced the rate of suicide among ages 10 to 24 increased nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018.
Not only is youth suicide on the rise, but patterns widely recognized in the mental health community about who is most likely to attempt suicide (older males) are changing.
Today, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Black children ages 10 to 19 and suicide attempts among Black adolescents have jumped 73 percent in a generation, a rate rising faster for Black teens than for any other racial or ethnic group. Research from JAMA Pediatrics shows Black youth 5 to 12 years old are more likely to die from suicide than their White counterparts. LGBTQ youth suicides are also on the rise as they are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
The overlooked message is youth suicide is preventable, and parents have an important role to play.
While there are differences in risk factors among different race and gender groups, experts agree early intervention is one of the best ways to reduce youth suicide. Parents and caregivers need to know risk factors and warning signs and how to talk to their kids about mental health challenges. We must eliminate stigmas and learn to give our youth support before they’re in crisis.
Each day, nearly 20 percent of American teens think about suicide. Observing their behavior and moods can reveal signs a teen is experiencing mental health challenges. The two most important things parents can do are to have a conversation with their kids and be proactive in preventing access to potential means of self-harm. Talking about suicide does not increase the likelihood of someone attempting it. Demonstrating it’s safe to have the conversation and your willingness to keep them safe can be lifesaving.
Another lifesaving step is preventing access to lethal means. Around half of suicide deaths involve a firearm—storing firearms securely helps put time and distance between a person having suicidal thoughts and a means of self-harm. With record firearm sales among the Black community — secure storage is especially important to reduce the risk of Black suicide.
Now is the time for the mental health advocates and the firearm community to work together to educate gun owners on suicide risk factors and best practices for storing guns.
It may seem odd a professor of clinical psychology and a champion shooter like us are working together, but that’s the innovative thinking we need. This is also why the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) partnered to reduce suicides by firearm.
People own guns, and we need to work together to better educate parents on how preventing at-risk individuals from accessing lethal means, including firearms, can save lives. There are affordable ways to secure firearms when not in use, including a cable lock, biometric safe, combination safe and more. Project ChildSafe, an NSSF program, provides free gun locks and educational materials to communities across the country. Teaching kids what to do if they encounter a firearm is another effective approach for all families — whether they own a gun or not.
Suicide is preventable and increasing our knowledge of adolescents’ mental health, talking with our kids, and creating a safe home environment through secure storage of firearms and other lethal means is a powerful combination that will save lives.