America is experiencing a striking rise in suicide among middle school students.
The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014, for the first time surpassing the death rate in that age group from car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014 alone, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.
"It’s alarming. We’re even getting cases involving 8- and 9-year olds,” said Clark Flatt, who started the Jason Foundation in Tennessee 20 years ago to help educate teachers about teen suicide after his 16-year-old son took his own life. “It’s scary. This isn’t an emerging problem – it’s here.”
Researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors — increased pressure on students to achieve academically, more economic uncertainty, increased fear of terrorism and social media — are behind the rise in suicides among the young.
The use of social media is a particular worry because it has amped up bullying among a vulnerable age group. Young students in prior generations left school each afternoon and avoided someone who bullied them until the next day or week. Now, social media allows for bullying 24/7 — and the bully doesn't even have to be someone the child knows.
“With social media you can’t turn people off,” said Phyllis Alongi, clinical director at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, a group founded by parents in Monmouth County whose children died by suicide.
Social media has also been behind the spread of dangerous phenomenons like the Blue Whale Challenge, which is recently rumored to have encouraged a handful of suicides of young people around the world. The game asks players to attempt daily tasks that include everything from watching horror films to self-mutilation. The parents of a 15-year-old Texas boy said this week that their son was participating in the challenge when he was found hanging in his closet, his cell phone propped up so it could broadcast his death.
There is so much pressure on young people they can become overwhelmed because they haven’t yet developed the coping skills adults rely on. Something an adult easily dismisses because of a lifetime of experience can be hard for a middle schooler to shrug off.
“Middle school is a very difficult time,” said Maurice Elias, a psychologist at Rutgers University and director of its Social-Emotional Learning Lab. It’s a challenging age, as some start puberty before others, and some are discerning their sexual orientation.
“They are trying to figure out who they are,” Elias said. “They are very sensitive to criticism. So they are particularly prone to suicidal ideation and even action. A lot of times they exaggerate the situation. If it’s a little thing, they think it’s a huge thing. If someone doesn’t like them, they think that nobody will like them forever.”
The statistics are heartbreaking. Nationwide, the annual rate climbed from 0.9 to 2.1 suicides per 100,000 middle schoolers between 2007 and 2014, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The causes of suicide can be complicated, and each case is different. A suicide is never the result of a single factor, experts say.
“Increasing the risk of suicide can be a lot of interacting pieces, from family issues to other stressors,” said Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and former chair of the state’s Anti-Bullying Task Force.
Experts say that to reduce suicide among teens, parents and teachers need education about warning signs. These can include changes in feelings, displays of distress, a sense of hopelessness, a change in appetite, sleep loss, lost interest in hobbies or giving away favored possessions, Alongi said.
Parents need to speak to their child if they think something is wrong.
“Always err on the side of asking the question,” Flatt said. “And don’t accept their first answer that everything is fine, especially if they are acting differently.”
He said his son, Jason, was a regular 16-year-old who loved sports and got Bs in school. But the Bs became Ds, and Jason failed to finish homework. Then Jason, who loved football, came out on the front step of their home and told his dad that he no longer wanted to play.
“I thought he had been through a tough spring practice and was tired,” Flatt recalled. “I said, ‘You certainly don’t have to play on my account, but why don’t you wait to decide until August.’ I lost him three weeks later. I hadn’t asked him why he didn’t want to play anymore.
“It’s tough to sit across from your son and ask if he’s thinking about hurting himself,” Flatt said. “If he says 'yes,' he’s put his life in your hands, and you need to know how to deal with it – don’t learn what you should do after the fact."
In the years since, he said he has spoken with hundreds of kids who attempted suicide and they all said that no one ever asked them if they wanted to hurt themselves. “If you already think nobody loves you or cares, and then nobody asks if you’re okay, that just reinforces what they’re thinking," Flatt said.
Research has shown that four of five teens who attempt suicide showed warning signs beforehand, Flatt said. “If we can train people to recognize those signs and respond, we can reduce the numbers," he said.
Alongi agreed. “The top myth about suicide is that if I talk about suicide I am planting the idea in their heads,” she said.
Experts also say schools need to create a welcoming environment where all students feel accepted, and to teach students the social and emotional skills that will help them navigate conflict.
Training educators is essential, experts say. “Training teachers is the single most impactful thing a state can do,” said Flatt, whose foundation has helped 19 states pass the Jason Flatt Act, which requires suicide prevention as part of teacher training.
Concerns about suicide were also part of the reason the state passed an anti-bullying act in 2006. “Most bullying cases occur in a school setting,” said Stuart Green, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention. “It’s the responsibility of the adults who staff these schools."
Green and others say addressing bullying not only helps those targeted, but also helps the bullies.
“We’re not dealing with a bunch of little Hannibal Lecters,” he said. “That behavior can change. If not, they grow up with problems when dealing with the workplace where bullying isn’t tolerated.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.