- Suicide has risen dramatically among young Americans from ages 10 to 24. It is now the second leading cause of death after accidents.
- Child psychologist Peter Gray says the trend may be linked not to social media or screen time, but to more stressed out kids, who are driven to excel all the time.
- Gray says unstructured play time is what helps children develop much-needed resilience and courage, and it’s desperately missing in today’s jam-packed student schedules.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
More young people are dying by suicide every year, and child psychologist Peter Gray thinks he may know why.
“I think it’s fairly obvious, school is becoming really stressful,” Gray told Insider, pointing to data he’s collected from across the country which suggests that more children think about, attempt, and die by suicide during the schoolyear than during winter holidays or summer breaks.
Many American kids are driven to excel in school, athletics, and every other extra-curricular area of life, developing near-perfect resumes for college and beyond. But the stress and anxiety they feel may be too much. Psychologists say that young people need more time for play and self-guided exploration, without scrutiny from adults.
“What we’re doing to children in school is, in my mind, cruel,” Gray said. “People want to blame social media, they want to blame video games, they want to blame bullying by other kids – this is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”
It’s a sentiment that mirrors what cycling coach Charlie Townsend told Business Insider after one of his former cyclists, 23-year-old Olympic silver medalist Kelly Catlin, died by suicide last spring, just months after sustaining a concussion during winter bike training.
“The suicide really has caused me to do a lot of thinking about what the right way to develop kids is, and what they really need to go forward – not just in cycling – but in the rest of their life,” Townsend said at the time.
Shortly before her death, Catlin wrote some harsh final thoughts to herself.
“Principle: If I am not an athlete, I am nothing,” she wrote, as reported by the Washington Post. And then, “If I am in therapy, I have failed.”
An engineering graduate student at Stanford University, Catlin was not the first to die by suicide on that campus this year. (Other colleges are also recording notable suicide upticks.)
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people in her age bracket, after accidents. Suicide deaths in young people are now more common than homicides, something that wasn’t true 19 years ago when Catlin was a kid.
Depression and anxiety are also on the rise
The rise in suicides and depression isn’t limited to older teens and young adults. One study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology earlier this year found that rates of major depressive episodes have more than doubled since the mid-2000s, in kids as young as 12 and young adults up to 25. (Most teens and young adults who attempt suicide have mental health issues, and many suffer from depression.)
Researchers who recently took a look at three urban emergency rooms across the US found that nearly a third of kids from ages 10 to 12 screened positive for suicide risk. Another larger study of suicidal thoughts and attempts recorded by children’s hospitals across the US in 2018 revealed spikes in the spring and fall, when school begins and ends. An additional 2015 study of California kids showed similarly that children and teens “are more likely to present with concerns for danger to self or others while attending school,” suggesting there may be something particularly toxic about it.
Gray suggests the issue runs deeper than just the charged classroom environment, and into the competitive, testing-oriented, and always-scheduled way that many kids’ lives are run today.
“We are creating young people who are relatively emotionally fragile,” he said. “In school they have no freedom. They’re told exactly what to do more so than ever in the past, and when they’re home, they’re kind of under home confinement, you know, it’s like locked down. They’re not allowed to go out and play with friends and just be kids. They have to be home, they have to be where parents can watch them.”
Unstructured play and unconditional love are cornerstones of healthy human development
The problem with this kind of daily schedule is that unstructured play time is an integral part of human development that helps kids develop courage, creativity, problem-solving, and social skills.
“That’s how they develop the ability to deal with stress and fear, so when a real emergency comes in life, they’re more prepared for it,” Gray said.
A small body of research suggests that kids from more affluent families may be more at risk of missing out on this unstructured social time, and it’s making them more anxious and depressed, feeling isolated and pressured to achieve at all costs.
“No child should want for either food or affection,” as developmental psychologist Suniya Luthar wrote in a 2003 study on the “psychological costs of material wealth.”
Psychologist Jean Twenge, who wrote the book “iGen” has also noticed a change in young adults, but she’s not so sure that technology isn’t playing a role. She authored a study earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology based on eight years of data from more than 600,000 people across the US, and found that more young people – particularly those in their early 20s – are going through sustained periods in which they’re losing interest in life and leisure activities, at rates much higher than that same age group did just a decade ago.
She’s not sure why this is happening, but she has a hunch that more screens aren’t helping.
“Face-to-face social interaction among teens has declined during the digital age, and that has mental-health implications,” Twenge told Business Insider earlier this year. “Face-to-face social interaction tends to protect against depression in a way that digital interaction does not.”
Screens can relieve stress and improve problem-solving, too
There’s no silver bullet treatment for depression or suicide risk, which are both influenced by factors ranging from the personal, biological, and genetic, to cultural and environmental. Still, in addition to adequate sleep and exercise, healthy food, and psychotherapy, there are things everyone can do to help their children and friends manage stress and anxiety. Having high-quality, positive social interactions with family and friends regularly can lower a person’s risk of depression.
“What makes kids happy is freedom and play,” Gray said. “There’s no question about that, this is what children are designed to do.”
Play can be digital. Research has shown that video games can relieve stress, improve problem-solving, and hand-eye coordination, too. Some therapists are now endorsing apps that allow people to text a therapist when they’re having a rough time.
“[Screens] are a part of our lives so it becomes about teaching kids how to live with them in a healthy and ethical way,” Jordan Shapiro, a research psychologist and author of “The New Childhood,” previously told Insider. “We’ve moved into a phase of humanity where we mediate through technology so its about figuring out how to do that compassionately.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests similarly that “problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning.”
What to do if you’re worried someone might be suicidal
Only a medical professional can diagnose someone as suicidal, but asking the question, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” and providing a safe space for someone to talk about their feelings without judgment or shame can be extremely helpful. Asking your peers, family, friends, and kids how they’re doing – and really listening to their answers without judgment – is a simple first step. (Even a text can help.)
There are several warning signs to keep an eye out for if you’re worried that someone close to you may be suicidal.
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves
- Looking for ways to complete suicide, like getting access to pills or a gun
- Talking about death, dying, or suicide out loud or on social media
- Rage and revenge-seeking
- Being reckless or doing uncharacteristically risky things
- Feeling trapped and withdrawing from social activities
- Anxiety or trouble sleeping
- Dramatic shifts in mood
Tell the person that you care, and let them do most of the talking about how they’re feeling. Remember that thoughts of suicide are common and often associated with a treatable mental disorder.