Between 2011 and 2021, the rate of teenage girls considering attempting suicide increased from 19% to 30%. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, MD, discusses the structural and individual changes needed to lower the rates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
It reports on the health and actions of high school students in the United States between 2011 and 2021. One of the critical areas investigated was suicidal thoughts and behaviors, as well as factors that could cause them, such as poor mental health, violence, and unstable housing.
One of the most notable and troubling results to come out of the survey was the severe increase in teenage girls with suicidal ideation. Researchers found that 30% of adolescent girls surveyed had seriously considered attempting suicide within the last year—up from 19% in 2011. The same was true for 45% of LGBQ+ individuals and 14% of boys.
The rate of girls who went one step further and made a suicide plan also increased over the decade, from 15% to 24%. The rate of high school girls who attempted suicide rose from 10% to 13%.
It could be simple to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for the increase, as the latest results were taken one year after it began. According to Dr. Courtney Conley, EdD, NCC, a licensed counselor with her own practice, “The pandemic limited young girls’ opportunity to form a healthy sense of self. They didn’t have access to peers, school sports, activities, and all those other in-person interactions. They leaned even more towards media, social media, and other fabricated sources to form their identity.”
However, in each area discussed, the numbers had increased prior to the pandemic, demonstrating it is not the only factor to blame here.
Factors increasing rates of suicidal ideation in teenage girls
Being a teenage girl has never been an easy hand to manage. But those growing up in the United States are living through an incredibly tumultuous time that they are inheriting and having to navigate.
“Teen girls have been through a mass-disabling and life-altering pandemic, and experience sexual violence, objectification of their bodies, homophobia, racism, misogyny, weight stigma, gun violence, climate anxiety, and so many more things that are present in the world today—and they are experiencing it without fully developed brains and perhaps without effective skills or supports needed to get through those moments,” says Alyse Ruriani, MA, ATR, LCP. A lot of this is also amplified by social media, which is linked to poor mental health and can facilitate cyberbullying.
Teenage girls also have the same challenging factors that have long plagued them and hurt their mental health. According to Dr. Rashmi Parmar, an adult and child psychiatrist at Mindpath Health, these negative factors can include:
- Difficult relationships with friends or family
- Peers suggesting self-harm
- Academic and social pressures
- Negative home environments
- Poor access to mental health care
One point of note is the shift to a reduced stigma in openly discussing mental health. While the above factors are undoubtedly relevant, it could be hypothesized that teen girls are more likely to share their mental health experiences honestly than they were a decade ago.
According to Parmar, the greater conversation around mental health “has definitely made it easier for teenage girls to be more open about discussing their inner challenges and feelings with others.”
However, the stigma is far from eradicated. “I continue to encounter the social stigma attached to mental health and suicide, which prohibits teenage girls from speaking about these issues freely. Some communities and cultures may have added stigma attached to recognizing mental health problems or seeking help for it,” says Parmar.
What steps can decrease teenage suicidal ideation?
There is no one size fits all solution to improving the mental health of teenage girls, but there are evident structural changes needed in society to move in the right direction. A clear one: better access to mental health education, therapy, and care.
As Parmar says, “resources like school counseling, online support groups, and outpatient psychiatric care should be easily available to teenage girls struggling with mental illness.”
Parmar further emphasizes the importance of limiting social media exposure, understanding and building healthy relationships, and training surrounding adults to recognize symptoms of poor mental health.
Each change, individual and societal, can help create a world in which suicidal ideation in teenage girls goes vastly down.