According to a recent study by the CDC, the suicide rate doubled for teen girls and increased by 30% for teen boys between 2007 and 2015. These startling figures paint a grim picture of the state of mental health for American teens.
Well-meaning adults sometimes minimize the seriousness of depression and anxiety in young people by referring to these conditions as “just teen angst.” However, the statistics make it clear: young people in America are suffering from real mental illnesses, with more and more choosing to end their own lives as a result.
One development that may be responsible for the recent increase in teen suicides is its prevalence in popular media and the spread of suicide and self-harm challenges, such as the “blue whale game.” Young people are increasingly being exposed to the idea of suicide online, as well as in television and movies in a way that doesn’t discourage the act, but often actively glorifies it.
Social Media and Suicidal Games
One of the more alarming examples of the glorification of teen suicide is a social media trend called the “blue whale game.” Players of the game are tasked by “admins”—who function as a sort of referee—to complete 50 days of challenges. These challenges typically include various forms of self-harm and culminate with the players ending their own lives.
The blue whale game and other similar suicidal games prey on vulnerable teens who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses or are experiencing high levels of turmoil and distress. These games encourage teens to cope with their negative feelings in destructive ways while providing a sense of power and control for those who are functioning as admins.
The blue whale suicide game has already been linked to at least 130 deaths in Russia, where it originated. This dangerous game has now spread to other countries, such as Brazil, India, and even the United States, where it continues to encourage struggling teens to turn to suicide instead of dealing with their emotional struggles in healthy ways.
Teen Suicide Encouraged by Online Communities
Social media platforms and other online communities have been involved in an increasing number of suicides. In one notable instance, a user of the online discussion site 4chan.org posted a message explaining that he would live stream his suicide for other users. 200 people logged into the stream to ridicule and insult him as they watched his suicide attempt end with his fortunate survival in a nearby hospital.
Others weren’t so lucky. A 12-year old in Georgia used Facebook Live to stream her suicide, with the video gaining 40,000 views before it was taken down. As the internet and video technology becomes more ingrained in youth culture, the number of suicides attended by online audiences is likely to increase.
Teen Suicide in Movies and Television
Another source of teen suicide glorification can be found in television and movies, with a recent example being Netflix’s drama series 13 Reasons Why. In this television program, high school sophomore Hannah Baker records a series of cassette tapes before her death explaining her reasons for committing suicide that she then mails to 13 fellow students and school staff. Although it attempts to discourage teen suicide, 13 Reasons Why ultimately portrays Hannah’s death in a way that validates the act and that her suicide was a “lesson” for all those who disrespected or mistreated her while she was alive
Shows like 13 Reasons Why make it easy for teens to justify their suicidal thoughts and to falsely imagine that positive effects could come from their deaths. Although this way of thinking couldn’t be further from the sad reality that is suicide, there have already been cases inspired by 13 Reasons Why.
Two teen girls from California ended their own lives not long after watching the series; their families are now laying some of the blame for the girls’ deaths on the series’ graphic portrayal of Hannah Baker’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding it. They argue that the two teens were at risk of suicide due to depression and that the Netflix program’s depiction of suicide served as deadly triggers.
This phenomenon of “copycat” suicides is well-documented and is often referred to as the “Werther effect.” German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s successful 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, depicts the death of the book’s protagonist by suicide. Today it is known as one of the first recognized instances of cluster suicides following a notable suicide covered in the media.
Teen Suicide in Texas
Texan teens are not immune from the dangers presented by suicides in the media. Although the state compares favorably against the national average, the youth suicide rate in Texas is on the rise, and many of the same media and online trends are affecting teens here in the Lone Star state.
Recently, a 15-year old boy in San Antonio took his own life in what his parents believe was a variation of the blue whale suicide game. According to his parents, his body was found facing his cell phone, which had been propped up to record and live stream the suicide. In another case, a teenage Texas couple was arrested in March 2017 over cyberbullying and online harassment that led to another teen’s suicide in 2016.
Because of the many changes in society caused by the internet and modern media, teens throughout Texas, the nation, and the world are increasingly at risk for suicide.
How to Stem the Tide of Teen Suicide
To help prevent the tragedy of teen suicide, we first need to understand today’s teens face unique challenges caused by the modern media environment. Secondly, we must understand that the root cause of suicide is mental illnesses, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorder-related anxiety disorders, and others. Social media or popular television programs may trigger it, but suicide is ultimately the result of a profoundly painful emotional struggle.
Learn to look for these teen mental health warning signs:
- Recent trauma or life crisis: For teens, common catalysts for suicide include a breakup, poor school performance, sudden change in status among peers, and the death or suicide of a peer.
- Extreme sadness or moodiness: Unstable moods, sadness that lasts for an extended period, and sudden rage or anger.
- Hopelessness: Feeling that there is no hope for life to improve or feeling that existence is pointless or meaningless.
- Loss of interest in hobbies or friends: No longer wanting to spend time socializing or pursuing previously-held interests.
- Problems sleeping: Those who suffer depression sometimes experience insomnia, while a smaller number will sleep excessively.
- Personality or behavior changes: Those who are considering suicide may become less concerned with hygiene or how they dress. Some may experience changes in eating patterns or may become generally sluggish.
- Sudden calmness: A period of sadness or visible distress followed by sudden calmness may indicate that the person has decided to end their own life.
- Risky or self-destructive behavior: Because they no longer value their own lives, people considering suicide may engage in dangerous behavior, such as unsafe sex, drug abuse, or even deliberate self-harm.
- Preparing: Writing suicide letters, recording video “goodbyes,” and giving away personal possessions.
- Threats of suicide: Every suicide threat should be taken seriously. Sometimes suicide threats are direct and made verbally, but others may be subtle and communicated through other means, such as a social media post.
How to Help a Teen Who May Be Suicidal
Because many teens may hide these warning signs, it’s a good idea to reach out about suicide to your child or friend even if you have the slightest hunch there may be a risk. Communicate your support for them in a non-judgmental way and then immediately seek the help of a trained mental health provider. A professional will know the best treatment options to consider for your teen’s unique case.
In some cases, inpatient treatment may be necessary to ensure a complete recovery. At Dallas Behavioral, our adolescent inpatient psychiatric program may be the best way to give your teen the support they need to get better.
Our 24-hour inpatient care provides a safe and therapeutic environment for teens struggling with emotional and psychological disorders. Our treatment is comprehensive and personalized, combining medication management, group therapy, and the best in evidence-based therapy approaches.
Learn how we can help your teen by reading more about our adolescent inpatient psychiatric program.
If you or someone you know is at immediate risk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255. The line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Confidential help is available for free.
If this is an emergency and you think someone’s life may be in danger, call 911.