- Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
- A startling new report from the American Psychological Association suggests that depression rates have spiked more than 50% since 2007 in teens and young adults.
- Young people from age 12 to 25 are also reporting more suicidal thoughts, plans, and suicide attempts.
- Last week, 23 year-old Olympic cyclist and Stanford graduate student Kelly Catlin died by suicide. She had sustained a concussion during winter training. It wasn’t the first death by suicide at that school in 2019.
- Psychologists are worried that kids are getting less sleep and spending more time on their phones.
Last week, 23-year-old US Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin died by suicide Friday at Stanford University. She is not the first student the university has lost that way this year, but doctors, psychologists, and coaches across the US are worried about the mental health of the nation’s young people far beyond the halls of Stanford.
There’s a quiet, deadly, and troubling trend on the rise: More young people of all ages are thinking about suicide, attempting suicide, and dying by suicide. Even though suicide rates are going up in nearly all age groups in the US, the trends that are happening in people under 26 are unique, according to a new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
When researchers looked at questionnaire responses to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from over 600,000 teens and adults across the US, they found that rates of major depressive episodes have more than doubled since the mid-2000s, in kids as young as 12 and young adults up to 25. Suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts are also going up markedly in young people.
“These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders,” lead study author and psychologist Jean Twenge said in a news release. “More U.S. adolescents and young adults … experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide.”
The trends are not specific to any social group, economic class, sex, or race, but the researchers did see some of the biggest upticks in young women, and people in their young 20s were especially vulnerable. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for all US teens and young adults from ages 10 to 35, after accidents.
Kelly Catlin was a first-year master’s-degree student studying computational and mathematical engineering and an accomplished cyclist who won silver in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She was also a fraternal triplet, and is now mourned by her brother, Colin, and her sister, Christine.
Her first cycling coach, Charlie Townsend of NorthStar Development Cycling in Minnesota, remembers Catlin as a jaw-dropping star cyclist who rose quickly into national and international competitions in less than two years on the team.
Last winter, Catlin sustained a concussion during training. Her sister, Christine, told the Associated Press Catlin was having “really bad headaches” and was more sensitive to light after the accident. She attempted suicide once in January, but seemed to be doing better recently.
Studies show experiencing a concussion can increase a person’s risk of suicide twofold, and while evidence is still scant, there are also indications that elite athletes are at higher risk for anxiety and depression, which are both risk factors for suicide. High-profile athletes like Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin have become increasingly open about their own mental health and depression.
“I think she put very, very high expectations on herself,” Townsend said of Catlin. “For the most part, she met those expectations.”
He wishes coaches were better at helping young athletes not only achieve success but also deal with setbacks and defeats: “The suicide really has caused me to do a lot of thinking about what the right way to develop kids is, and what they really need to go forward – not just in cycling – but in the rest of their life.”
ER doctors are seeing more young kids who’ve attempted suicide
Athletes are not the only young people at risk. Researchers recently took a look at three different urban emergency rooms across the US and found that a third of kids from ages 10 to 12 screened positive for suicide risk.
“Typically, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are seen in older teens,” study author Lisa Horowitz, a clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, said in a news release. “This study shows that children as young as 10 who show up in the emergency department may be thinking about suicide, and that screening all preteens – regardless of their presenting symptoms – may save lives.”
Researchers aren’t sure why this is happening, but they think that both more screen time and less sleep may play a role. The two often go hand in hand: Studies show that the glowing lights of a phone or TV affect our sleep quality, and there’s plenty of data suggesting people are getting up more often in the middle of the night to check on their buzzing phones.
“Overall, make sure digital media use doesn’t interfere with activities more beneficial to mental health such as face-to-face social interaction, exercise and sleep,” Twenge said.
What to do if you’re worried someone might be suicidal
Depression and mental illness can’t be willed away, and it’s not a character flaw. Traumatic events that lead to depression can happen to anyone, and more than 1 in 20 Americans suffers from depression on any given day.
There are several warning signs to keep an eye out for if you’re worried that someone close to you may be suicidal. These include:
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves
- Looking for ways to complete suicide, like getting access to pills or a gun
- Talking about death, dying, or suicide out loud or on social media
- Rage and revenge-seeking
- Being reckless or doing uncharacteristically risky things
- Feeling trapped and withdrawing from social activities
- Anxiety or trouble sleeping
- Dramatic shifts in mood
Only a medical professional can diagnose someone as suicidal, but asking the question, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” and providing a safe space for someone to talk about their feelings without judgment or shame can be extremely helpful.
Tell the person that you care, and let them do most of the talking about how they’re feeling. Remember that thoughts of suicide are common and often associated with a treatable mental disorder.
- Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
- Read more:
- The US suicide rate has increased 30% since 2000, and tripled for young girls. Here’s what we can do about it.
- These 4 short L-words can help reveal if you might be depressed
- Science-backed ways to fight the winter blues
- Men working in construction, stay-at-home moms, and students are committing suicide in alarmingly high numbers, and it’s part of a disturbing trend