Teenage suicide: trouble in a virtual paradise

It’s not just someone obsessed by Columbine.  Last year, a seemingly normal teen was found dead from suicide in a Corona del Mar park. Just a few weeks ago, a young man walked into a local South County fast food joint, then into the restroom, where he was found hung. Another was found dead on the grounds of an Aliso Viejo school.   A few days later, the school parent open house made almost no mention of the event.  These are not isolated incidents.  According to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, nine teens died from suicide so far in the first three months of 2019, already surpassing the total of seven suicides for all of 2018.  But we shouldn’t talk about it, or should we?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article and a video about six students from the Herriman High School in Utah who died from suicide in less than a year.  The anguish of the parents, the distraught of fellow students, the search for causes and answers, was graphically documented.  A school board member admitted that initially discussions of the suicides were stifled, but now the community realized they had to face and discuss the reality.  In 2013 and 2104, a similar rash of teen suicides in Palo Alto was memorialized in a movie.

The reality is that there is a shocking increase in suicides among teens and young people.  A recent study published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology of over 600,000 individuals, showed that the suicide rate has doubled in this age group, and in some communities tripled between 2010 and 2017.  One in approximately seven young people suffered a major depressive episode in the year 2017.  For every successful suicide, countless others are attempted.

Nor is this epidemic a U.S. phenomenon alone.  A recent study in the British Medical Journal demonstrated similar increases in Great Britain, particularly self-harm among young women.  Thus, it is not U.S. politics, nor our access to guns that is driving this phenomenon.  It is interesting to note, and several of the authors of these studies speculate, that there may be a relationship to the rapid increase of video gaming, usage of social media and personal devices such as cell phones and portable tablets from 2010 forwards.  In a paradoxical way, these devices can connect young people virtually, but at the same time isolate them from face to face communications, even deepen sensations of loneliness.  Identities can be created, altered, and influenced with virtual interactions.  These devices have some addictive properties:  Indeed, studies are beginning to show that a similar release of neurotransmitters occurs with repetitive use of these devices as with use of addictive drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines.   The near constant use of these devices is cyborg-like, their wearable extensions seemingly implanted onto our bodies, so commonly now young people use them from awakening, on through and into their beds where overuse can lead to sleeplessness.  The blue rays from the devices can affect the neurotransmitter melatonin counteracting its beneficial effects conducive to sleep.  Sleep deprivation causes mental disorders.

Although association is not causation, a strong argument for the correlation of rapidly proliferating social media and associated devices can be made to the suicide epidemic among youth.  The human brain, particularly the still immature and developing teenage brain, was not wired for the level of constant stimulation now provided by the internet and related technology. Superimpose these factors on an adolescent brain still developing its wiring, the typical stressors of adolescent angst coupled with inordinate academic pressures, some drug experimentation, and things can go haywire.

Something is clearly changing.  Some things need to change.  Parents and their kids need to re-connect, and not by texting.  Appropriately prioritizing personal interaction and device-free activities, asking the right questions, ensuring restful sleep, are obvious tactics.  When struggling, available resources should be sought out.  We created a wonderful resource — the after-school program for resiliency education (ASPIRE) — after their rash of suicides. This program is guided by licensed therapists, and brings groups of kids together to proactively teach them skills that deal with their unique pressures, fears,  and mood disorders.  Parents are included strategically.  Insurance covers costs, and school credit towards high school graduation is available. It may be a small change going forward, but at least it is something.

Michael Brant-Zawadzki is senior physician executive, and endowed chair, Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute, Hoag Hospital, Newport Beach, CA.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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