12:07 PM

It’s time to talk about the suicide epidemic with teens and young adults



Stress, isolation and COVID are driving a surge in student suicides.

For a parent, relative or friend of a victim of suicide, there’s no worse nightmare than learning that a soul who was close to you has taken his or her own life.

In recent months, these tragedies have grown in frequency, with a surge reported on college campuses, high schools, and even middle schools throughout New Jersey and the country.

Indescribable grief and confusion about “why” are typical, but mental health experts challenge us to start asking ourselves a different question – and sooner – to help prevent it: “How?”

How can we see the warning signs? How can we understand the triggers? How can we prevent the people we care about from becoming a suicide statistic? How can I check in and have a conversation to save a life?

“This is a problem that has grown and intensified over the last twenty years, and the pandemic has amplified it,” said Frederick Villars, MD, Head of Psychiatry Services for Horizon BCBSNJ. A series of recent suicides at Rowan University promoted the college to hire additional on-campus mental health counselors and make more in-person and virtual mental health services available. At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where two student suicides occurred in one month, the college temporarily suspended classes to give students a mental health “wellness day” to grieve and cope.

“The biggest challenge colleges face,” Dr. Villars explains, “is identifying students who are at risk and putting the interventions in place to help those students and avoid a tragedy. A suicide is a tragic event that can bring the entire business of education to a screeching halt. At the same time, colleges alone are not prepared to take on the challenge of preventing them.”

The scope of the challenge has roots that are not necessarily in the college itself, but in a young person’s readiness to accept and adapt to the college and campus environment.

“For lots of young people, college marks the first time they’ve left home for an unknown environment, with no friends, a roommate who is new and unfamiliar and a college atmosphere that can be overwhelming to navigate. When you add the pressure of maintaining grades, the emotional burden becomes even heavier. A young person is in crisis when she or he feels isolated and alone while struggling to cope in a college environment.”

What can – and should – parents do?

While going off to college can be a young person’s first real taste of freedom and independence, it also can be a time when they need their parents’ support the most. That’s why, Dr. Villars said, it’s critically important for parents to keep lines of communications open at all times, whether through staying in touch by phone during the semester or catching up in-person when the student is on break.

“Students should always feel at ease with talking openly to their parents about the pressures they may feel being at school. Parents can help them by being open-minded and initiating that conversation,” Dr. Villars said.

“Parents should provide a receptive and supporting atmosphere in which everything is on the table to discuss -- from interactions with teachers, deans, dorm leaders, to larger events that are shaping their world, such as the pandemic and racial unrest. Some students may say they are under pressure and need to take a semester off. Parents should be ready for that conversation as well.”

Dr. Villars and other mental health experts note that understanding whether the feedback you get from your children warrants intervention (and if so, what kind) can be complicated. “The key to a healthy parent/child relationship is to be open, supportive, non-judgmental and understanding. Process what you hear and trust your heart and your gut if you recognize the warning signs,” he said.

The warning signs for youth suicide

Reversing suicide trends starts with how to recognize and act on the warning signs.

Parents should closely observe their children for these behaviors:

  • Feeling sad or irritable more often;
  • Sleeping or eating more or less than usual;
  • Showing little to no interest in pleasurable activities;
  • Withdrawing from others;
  • Engaging in reckless behavior that is out of character;
  • Self-harm such as cutting or injuring oneself on purpose
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs;
  • Talking about death or dying often;
  • Expressing they are a burden or that they have no value.

According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) we know that:

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34;
  • Suicide is increasing steadily, with rates rising by 35% since1999;
  • Suicide was responsible for the loss of 48,000 lives in 2019 alone;
  • A suicide occurs among all age groups every 11 minutes.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers comprehensive resources on suicide education and prevention.

If you or someone you love is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. The hotline’s professionals are available to you 24/7/365.

Our Horizon Behavioral HealthSM website is also an effective resource, helping members find a behavioral health provider or check potential symptoms with self-assessment tools.