Do we really care about “teen suicide”?

Do leaders and interests really care about “teen suicide” — or just how they can use it?

If you follow the major-media/political discussion, you “know” teenagers commit suicide in huge numbers for only three reasons:

  • The “teenage brain,” which is irrational, impulsive, over-dramatic, and self-destructive.
  • Peer bullying, especially cyberbullying, both depicted as nonexistent in adulthood (which is why “it gets better”).
  • The failure of authorities to adopt an interest group’s agenda.

The first problem is exaggeration. The latest Centers for Disease Control figures show that of the nation’s 41,800,000 teenagers, 2,143 (1 in every 19,500) committed suicide or died from an undetermined cause likely to have been suicide in 2013, slightly over 5% of the nation’s total suicides (from popular representations, you’d think it was 95%). In contrast, among an equivalent population age 40-49 (their parents), 7,533 (1 in 5,600) committed suicide.

An adult of age to be parent to a teenager is more than twice as likely to commit suicide as an older teen age 15-19, and nearly 10 times more likely to commit suicide than a younger teen age 10-14. That is, compared to adults, teenagers are uniquely disinclined to commit suicide.

This is important. It seems like officials, interests, and the media are collaborating to convince teenagers that suicide is normative for their age, when the reality is diametrically the opposite. They also obscure the vital truth that populations (i.e., white males) and locales (i.e., intermountain states) with high adult suicide rates also have high teen suicide rates. That consistent reality is hard for those who misrepresent teenagers as succumbing to their own teenaged irrationality to explain.

Second, no one (beyond a few unquoted researchers and storefront programs) seems honestly interested in why a small number of young people commit suicide. The largest, best study of 2,881 young gay men found that it wasn’t bullying, but parents’ addiction and histories of childhood abuse, that were the main contributors to their suicidal feelings – clearly a disappointing finding gay advocates and political leaders systematically ignore.

The point here is not to diminish the tragedy of a suicide, nor to disparage valuable efforts to prevent suicide. Just the opposite: the point is to marshal the best information instead of the inflammatory, self-serving junk so many agencies and interests peddle through a compliant media. And, to stop the rampant exaggeration and lying about what we call “teen suicide” and to recognize that the most crucial factors promoting suicide are imposed on young people from the outside.

Over the last 20 years, America’s suicide rate has increased by 9% as other forms of death have fallen. Teenagers are not the cause; it’s their parents. Two decades ago, the average parent-aged adult was around twice as likely to commit suicide as their teen aged 13-18. Today, the suicide risk for middle-aged adults has leaped to triple that of high-school youth. Suicide has risen fastest (up a startling 55% by rate over the last two decades) among the most privileged demographic, non-Latino Whites in their late 40s and 50s, which is also the fastest-growing population for drug abuse, crime, and imprisonment.

Yet, the fact that many more thousands of teenagers suffer the suicide of a parent than the other way around, causing great distress to the children and teens left behind and upping their own suicidality, seems of zero concern. When have you seen any media stories, White House or agency conferences, or interest-group press campaigns featuring teenagers who suffer the suicide or drug-abuse death of a parent or nearby adult? Those who claim such great concern for youth show no sympathy for that kind of suicidal teen, or even recognize his/her existence. They’re treated like an embarrassment to the image of grownup life as mature and serene, whose only vexation is the misbehaviors of their kids.

A third problem is that interest groups are relentlessly exploitative, trumpeting without evidence that failing to implement their policy agenda will result in teenagers killing themselves. Native American activists repeatedly contend that Native American teenagers are committing suicide because of the name racist-named sports teams such as the Washington Redskins. Activists regularly argue that gay and transgender teens commit suicide because of negative cultural symbols and homophobic comments.

Getting rid of team names that constitute racial slurs, and advancing gay and transgender rights and respect are both valid causes. But these can be accomplished without playing the “teen suicide” card that unconscionably images Native and gay youth as impulsively self-destructive and driven to kill themselves by abstract symbols and quips. Such exploitation trivializes their tangible real-life problems, including family violence, childhood abuse, alcoholism, poverty, isolation, and adult suicide (note the real reasons young gays themselves give for their self-destructive feelings).

Gay teens who suffer bullying and rejection by parents are many times more likely to suffer poor health outcomes, including suicide. Yet… do you see any concern among gay activist groups, the White House and other leaders, or major or alternative media for these tragedies? It’s very disturbing that those claiming great concern for “our teens committing suicide” then turn around and ignore crucial causal factors in order to blame issues amenable to easy finger-pointing, such as peer bullying, or that advance their own political causes.

Exploiting teen suicide is nothing new. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Association of Psychiatric Hospitals wildly hyped an “epidemic of teen suicide” (including ads showing parents weeping over graves) to profitably fill beds in overbuilt hospitals. In the late 1980s, Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center (and later crusaders such as then-Senators Joe Lieberman and Sam Brownback) circulated sleazy distortions and moralizing to blame musicians like Metallica, Ozzie Osbourne, and Marilyn Manson for “teen suicide.”

Exploitation exacerbates tragedy. Suicide among young people, though rare, is an important issue requiring rigorous analysis and carefully designed prevention, not cheap, sensational splashes that focus only on its “easy,” “popular,” and “politically useful” aspects. As on many issues, the most effective strategies do not single out teens, but are age-integrated. But that requires a genuine concern for young people America just does not seem to have. (Mike Males)