Your younger years have all the potential to be the happiest of your life – and yet suicide kills young people aged five to 34 more than any other cause of death.
In people aged between five and 19, suicide is the leading cause of death in the UK, followed by transport accidents, according to a 2017 Public Health England report, which also states suicide is the leading cause of death for men and women aged 20-34.
Likewise, in the last five years, teen suicide attempts in America have increased 23 per cent. Here in the UK, ChildLine reports they have 60 counselling cases with children who are worried about suicide, each week.
So why, when societal mythology dictates young people should be full of vitality, hope and optimism, are so many taking their own lives?
England’s Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield told BBC 5 Live poor mental health has become ‘part and parcel’ of youth, fuelled by a digital world selling self-worth as measured against ‘unattainable lifestyles’.
Renowned psychologist Dr Jean Twenge told UNILAD she thinks she knows why.
A new American study has uncovered the smartphone’s catastrophic effects on iGen; the children, teens, and young adults born in the mid-1990s and later who are being made lonely and anxious by the devices in their pockets.
Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who took their own lives increased by 31 per cent. Dr Twenge thinks the two are linked.
The NHS offers advice if you are feeling suicidal, or you’re worried about someone else:
In the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of American teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 per cent in large national surveys and analysis has found the epidemic of poor mental health is more prevalent in young adults than their millennial predecessors.
Dr Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy places the blame, at least in part, on young adults’ dependence on their smartphones.
After all, in 2015, 75 per cent of teens and young adults had access to a smartphone.
Dr Twenge told UNILAD about the correlation:
Several longitudinal and experimental studies show screen time leads to unhappiness rather than unhappiness leading to screen time.
Her team published their analysis, titled Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time, in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
They found teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 per cent more likely to suffer suicide risk than those who spent less than an hour a day online.
Overall, suicide risk factors – including depression and suicide ideation (planning to take their own life) – rose significantly after two or more hours a day online.
Giving scientific credence to the conversation, Dr Twenge claims social isolation – one of the major risk factors for suicide – is a direct consequence of fewer hours of face-to-face interaction.
For the lucky few who don’t know, loneliness and social isolation can mean standing in a crowd, surrounded by people, and still feeling totally adrift.
It can affect anyone, and in fact, there are 9 million people in the UK who are always or often lonely – a feeling as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
While data collected using UCLA’s Loneliness Index states the youngest generation of Americans is the worst affected by the loneliness epidemic, a survey by Action for Children here in the UK found 43 per cent of 17- to 25-year-olds experienced problems with loneliness, and less than half said they felt loved.
Tracey Crouch MP, the UK’s first Minister for Loneliness, agreed the statistics in America reflected across the pond here in the UK with ‘younger adults reporting feeling more lonely, more often’.
Talking to UNILAD in May to mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, the Minister said:
Despite 16- to 24-year-olds being one of the most digitally-connected generations we’ve ever seen, their connectivity outside the digital sphere is less. They perhaps need to go a bit analogue for a while!
This is one of the challenges: As a government, you can’t tell people to put down their smartphones and talk to others but you can actually try to support the services out there and make those opportunities attractive.
I’d like to get to the point where we talk about loneliness in a much more healthy and comfortable way so people don’t feel they’re being stigmatised.
Everybody will go through feeling lonely at some point in their life, and that’s not always necessarily a bad thing, but when it gets to a point of harm then that’s when it becomes damaging.
Echoing the sentiment, an ONS Community Life Survey identified ‘younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area’ as being particularly at risk.
Social pressures can be compounded by more isolation in working environments – not to mention the need to move from big city to big city to find jobs – and decrease the day-to-day interactions which can serve to interrupt someone’s suicidal feelings and maybe save their life.
But the factors in suicide – whether linked to poor mental health or difficult life events – don’t always start in adulthood.
Half of the nation’s mental health problems are established before the sufferer turns 14, and 75 per cent by the age of 24. Furthermore, it’s no secret children and teens experience hardship everyday. It just looks a little different for the iGeneration.
In the past, bullying often stopped at the school gates but now the dangers follow victims everywhere, sitting in their pockets and calling with the buzz of a smartphone.
With the rise of social media, the cyberbullying crisis is impossible to ignore.
It’s been raised in programmes like 13 Reasons Why to much controversy:
In pain-staking detail the much-maligned but well-meaning Netflix show documented the journey of a young woman called Hannah, from cyberbullying and slut-shaming to image-based sexual abuse and rape which ultimately leads her to take her own life.
While the plot may have been fictitious, the reality of the teen suicide rates in America is universal to sufferers, Dr Twenge says.
Suicidal feelings among young adults occur regardless of socio-economic or cultural factors, but the increase was particularly ‘driven by females’.
While suicide ideation isn’t always connected to poor mental health, it can be a major factor in cases – and a quarter of teenage girls in England are diagnosed with depression.
Fatmata Kamara, a Specialist Nurse Advisor from Bupa UK told UNILAD:
Suicidal thoughts and feelings can affect anyone at any time, regardless of your age, gender or background.
There are lots of reasons why someone may be experiencing suicidal feelings, for example if there’s been a big change in your life or you’ve lost someone close to you.
It’s important to remember that everyone is different and has their own struggles.
Indeed, when we talk about the cyberbullying crisis, the discourse often revolves around the female experience, which mustn’t be swept under the rug.
But with the modern tropes of masculinity ever-changing, young men are subjected to stereotyping and the unbelievable suffering it can cause too, Craig Martin, Global Director, Mental Health & Suicide Prevention at the Movember Foundation told UNILAD.
He said, ‘Historically the dominant masculinity is one that champions stoicism, independence, invulnerability and avoidance of negative emotions.’
In particular, self-reliance has been shown to be associated with negative health outcomes including suicidal thinking.
At the Movember Foundation, we are committed to creating a world that celebrates the courageous men who speak up when times get tough and are willing to have the tough conversations with their friends.
We are also encouraging men to prioritise their social connections as we know this is good for their mental health and can help them navigate through the tough times in life.
A Childwise report found teenage boys spend the longest amount of time staring at a screen of some description – an average of eight hours every single day.
In other words they spend eight hours a day under threat from cyberbullying.
It’s a sad reality faced everyday by young men like Ryan Woollard, 22, from Leeds, who felt his life was over when he was brutally beaten up by bullies in act of violence which was filmed and shared online.
Speaking exclusively to UNILAD, Ryan recalled one of many daily attacks:
In high school, during lunch break, this kid came up to me. I’d never even seen him before. He sucker punched me and I fell back and hit my head on the ground.
All I remember is feeling fists on my face. My eyes were all groggy so I couldn’t really see what was going on. I didn’t find out until later that night they’d all filmed it and put it all over the internet.
You can watch his story below:
Ryan was just 12 years old when this public humiliation left him feeling suicidal. He’s not alone.
Male rates of suicide remain consistently higher than female suicide rates across the UK and Republic of Ireland – most notably five times higher in Republic of Ireland and around three times in the UK.
If you’re a guy aged between 8 and 80, you’ve probably been told to ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ at some point in your life.
While the nonsensical demand might not seem like a big deal at the time, a report asking what it means to be a modern man has revealed the terrible consequences of stereotyping masculinity – from violence, by way of isolation and repression, to suicide.
Indeed, the higher rates of male suicide can be partly attributed to the statistics which show men typically attempt suicide by violent means, more likely to result in death.
Lynx conducted the study of a representative, random sample of young men aged 18 to 30 in the US, UK, and Mexico and found a structure of expectations which traps guys from an early age. They called it the ‘Man Box’.
Worryingly, guys forced to conform to these archaic modes of manhood are twice as likely to take their own lives, with British men at the most risk, being 2.8 times more likely to die by suicide.
Of the 3,500 guys surveyed, 665 men reported having had thoughts of suicide within the last two weeks – that’s 19 per cent of men thinking of taking their own lives within the last 14 days.
It’s important to identify signs of potential risk:
The Lynx study also found that at least 38 per cent of guys surveyed believe society thinks a man who talks about his problems ‘shouldn’t get respect’.
In fact, at least 49 per cent of guys think society expects them to figure out their personal problems alone.
We know this doesn’t work.
In fact, these attitudes whole-heartedly contribute to a society which has isolated and failed a ream of young people who have taken their own lives.
Lucy Alexander’s son Felix took his own life in April 2016 aged 17 as the result of six years of persistent bullying.
This is her story:
It’s also been found transgender and gender non-conforming individuals experience a much higher rate of suicide, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted in America in 2014.
A shocking 41 per cent of people in the trans community had attempted suicide – exceeding the 10 to 20 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide – and analysis of other demographic variables found prevalence of suicide attempts was highest among those aged 18 to 24, elevated by discrimination, victimisation, or violence.
It seems whoever you are, the simple fact of growing up in Western society right now is reason enough to consider your own mortality and remind yourself of the preciousness of life.
Under Theresa May PM, the government have committed to reducing suicides in England by 10 per cent by 2021 to support the zero suicide ambition for mental health inpatients announced by then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Jeremy Hunt in January of this year.
The mission, should it be successful, would save the lives of many young people.
PAPYRUS UK, the leading young people’s suicide awareness charity, states:
Suicidal feelings do not have to end in suicide. We need to smash the stigma and talk through the taboo. Stigma promotes silence, which is killing young people.
Words are often totally inadequate to convey the amount of pain a person may be suffering. It is easy to understand that someone is hurting if they have been badly injured or are physically ill. Emotional pain cannot be seen, but it can be just as unbearable.
Asking about suicide can also have an effect on the person asking – you may be asking a friend or family member, which can be distressing and you might find the answer painful and hard to comprehend.
But it is vital that you ask: ‘Have you thought of suicide?’ This communicates that you there to support them and that it is okay for your friend or family member to share their thoughts about suicide.
They also signpost PAPYRUS’ own suicide crisis hotline, HOPELineUK which can be called on 0800 068 4141 of via text on 07786 209 697. There’s also a site called Hub of Hope where you can find your closest mental health services.
There is – as ever – hope and help out there for young people.
This week is National Suicide Prevention Week in the US. Follow UNILAD’s Suicide Prevention series every night at 8pm BST (3pm ET) over the next week on our social channels to find out more.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found at Suicide.org.
Save a life. Take the free suicide prevention training provided by Zero Suicide Alliance today.