Suicide takes the lives of 45,000 people every year—and that stat seems likely to get even more concerning. Because it is growing, and at a more rapid rate for women and girls than for men and boys. The ratio of male suicide rates to female suicide rates narrowed from 4.4 in 2000 to 3.6 in 2016, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). (By 2016, the number of male suicide deaths per 100,000 people increased from 17.7 to 21.4, while in women, it increased from four to six.)
The trend, for lack of a better word, is more acute when looking at suicide in young people. Since 2007, rates in suicide amongst female youth aged 10 to 14 years increased 12.7 percent every year (compared to a still-alarming increase of 7.1 percent per year among boys of the same age group), according to a study published in May in JAMA Network Open.
Experts aren’t completely sure what’s behind the rising rates of women and girls completing suicide, but there are a few theories. “The risk factor that’s most likely is depression,” says Holly Wilcox, PhD, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. While not everyone who has depression feels suicidal, it’s a big risk factor for suicide, and women and girls experience depression at higher rates. Women are almost twice as likely as men to suffer from depression, per the CDC. For girls and boys, it’s an even bigger difference—20 percent of adolescent females compared to about 7 percent of adolescent males experience depression.
Means of suicide could also play a role. Adult women attempt suicide about 1.4 times as often as adult men, per the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, yet historically, women have completed suicide using less lethal means than men—leading in part to lower fatalities. While firearms remain the most common means of suicide for boys (and men), the above-mentioned JAMA study on adolescent suicide rates found that girls are increasingly using more lethal methods that are more likely to lead to a death. “Most youth suicide decedents actually die on their first attempt, with the likelihood of death on first attempt being associated with lethality of method. Consequently, a sustained shift toward a highly lethal method…by female youth could have grave public health implications and drive elevations in the rates of female suicide,” the study authors wrote. Similarly, adult women who complete suicide seem to be gravitating towards more lethal methods than in years past.
When it comes to young people, there’s been an elephant in the room—well, on phones and computers—over the past decade or so. “Another thing that comes up frequently is the role of social media [in suicides],” says Dr. Wilcox, who serves on the Maryland Commission on Suicide Prevention. “Most people who post something on social media put their best foot forward, so to speak. They show images and pictures of them having a great time and having fun, and it can [potentially] make people who are struggling feel even worse,” she says. Social media has also enabled new extremes of cyber bullying, which a 2018 review of studies found doubles the risk of a victim having suicidal thoughts or attempting self-harm compared to those who haven’t experienced cyber bullying.
“We also want to recognize that there are many, many people who are struggling with [suicidal thoughts] at times and finding ways to get through it, finding hope, finding ways to cope.” —Shari Sinwelski, associate director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
One important thing to note, says Shari Sinwelski, associate director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, is that for every person who dies by suicide, there are 280 other people who consider suicide but don’t attempt it. “We also want to recognize that there are many, many people who are struggling with this issue at times and finding ways to get through it, finding hope, finding ways to cope,” she says.
One thing everyone can do, says Dr. Wilcox, is to brush up on the warning signs associated with suicide so that you can better recognize them in family and friends. Some examples, according to suicide prevention organization Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), include talking about feeling hopeless, trapped, or being a burden to others, withdrawing or feeling isolated, displaying extreme mood swings, and talking about wanting to die. If you notice any of these signs in someone you know, it’s critical to talk to them about it in order to encourage them to seek the appropriate professional help.
“Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to have a conversation with people because, oftentimes, if you’re not trained as a mental health professional, you’re really afraid that you may say the wrong things and make that person’s situation worse,” says Dr. Wilcox. “But oftentimes, it’s good to trust your gut.” You should express your support and concerns for that person while also directly asking if they have suicidal thoughts or are thinking about attempting suicide, she says. “Then try to help facilitate that individual getting help if they need it.”
Many people might struggle to bring up the topic of suicide with loved ones. “A lot of times, when people hear the word ‘suicide’ or they think about suicide…the first thing they think is, ‘I don’t want my loved one to hurt themselves, I don’t want them to kill themselves,’ which is natural. Nobody wants that,” says Sinwelski. That’s understandable—but Dan Reidenberg, PsyD, executive director of SAVE, notes that research shows that having a conversation with someone about suicide doesn’t make a person more suicidal.
Instead, Dr. Sinwelski says, people struggling with suicidal thoughts might interpret that reticence to talk as not being understood or cared for, which adds to existing stigma and can further isolate people in need. “It’s really important that the general public know how to just have a basic conversation and be able to listen, with perhaps not having that immediate sense of shock,” he says.
Really, we should be talking with each other more about mental health in general—about how we feel, about self-care, about seeking therapy—to help erase any stigma in our own circles. “We can try to shift our norms,” Dr. Wilcox says. In the case of suicide, that shift could be life-saving.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat online.
One woman shares her experience with suicidal thoughts—and what ultimately helped save her life. And here’s how to talk openly, honestly, and without judgement about suicide.