Monday, September 24, 2018

How do we explain the trends in teen suicide?

The rise in teen suicide since 2007 was recently documented at Chateau Heartiste (CH). The increase was attributed to the humiliations of social media and the alienation of a diversifying country.

CH wanted to see a longer trend broken out by race, so I used CDC data to calculate rates for white teens going back to 1968. Trends had to be broken into periods. Here's the first from 1968-1978:

The rate rose and peaked in 1977 at over 9 suicides per 100k white teens ages 15-19. The next graph covers 1979-1998:

White teen suicides continued to climb and peaked in 1988 at 12 per 100k, then returning to 9 thereafter.  From 1999-2016:

The rate fell below 9 and bottomed out at 7 in 2007. Since then it has risen to almost 12, which matches the 1988 peak.

I doubt there are only a couple factors to explain these trends. Your ideas are appreciated. Drug use among teens was on the increase in the 70s, and it peaked around 1978. But it fell in the 80s while suicide kept climbing. Then it became to climb again around '93 and has basically plateaued  since the late 90s. Alcohol use has declined from the 70s to the present day, so drugs and alcohol don't seem to explain it.

I was working in a psychiatric unit in the late 80s, and many of the teens were Goth types. All the "rapid onset" teen transgenders were hearing about reminds us how important social contagion is for adolescents.

Gun availability doesn't explain it: While the number of guns per gun-holding household has risen over the past few decades, you don't need 10 guns to kill yourself. You just need one. The percentage of homes with any guns has drifted down.

I don't know enough about trends in treatment and prescription drugs to know if they explain the trends.

Divorce was on the rise in the 70s, but I don't know why suicide would fall during the 90s if family is so important.  Friends are obviously important to teens, and social media certainly seems important over the last decade, but I don't know what what going on to drive trends from the 70s to the 90s. Ideas?

By the way, over the entire period black teen suicide rate was much lower than for whites. Half as much. Like whites, rates rise in the 70s and 80s and peak later in 1994, then they fall but have jumped again in the last couple years, perhaps due to social media.

UPDATE: If we ignore the ups and downs, the big picture is that the white teen suicide rate in the late 60s was around 5 and by the late 70s and since it has been very roughly twice that rate. So something has happened to kids' lives over the past 45 years. HC talks about diversity. The country is certainly more diverse. Families are definitely messier than they used to be. Changes in treatment seem to have made things worse, not better. Social media facilitates humiliation.

One interesting change is sex. More teens have sex now than in the 60s, and liberationists tell us more sex means happier people. It actually seems to be making teens more miserable.  


  1. Could you disaggregate by population density? Also, ecological correlations are in order at this stage of epidemiology. My impression, from building the Laboratory of the States website's database to investigate autism epidemiology -- which included suicides -- is that rural populations are/were more prone to suicide. The recent increase in white suicides have to a different etiology than the 1988 peak IMHO.

    If I were to hazard a guess about the 1988 peak: It is related to the vicious sexual competition associated with the non-early Boomers (not the ones born in the late 40s) being relegated to a ghetto of perpetual courtship because the males were unable to afford what their parents and early boomers could: Income reliable enough to service a mortgage with 19% fixed interest in a housing market not-yet adapted to the shockwave. Housing experienced elevated prices on top of the interest rate when the bulk of the boomers were trying to form families in the early 80s. This perpetual courtship by the bulk of the Boomers would have placed an enormous pressure on younger males. It is interesting to note that 1988 is also around the time that mortgage foreclosures peaked, subsequent to the desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt at fertile family formation by the peak of the Boomers.

  2. Your wrong. White teens today have much less sex than Baby boomers and GenXers:

    The two most common causes suicide in 1st world and most other societies are feeling feeling useless and a lack of sexual activity. The groups with the highest rates of suicide tend to have the least sex (Japan being an obvious example).

    Meanwhile, Black America has more sex than tbe rest of the nation, and has the lowest rates of suicide.

  3. Misery, anxiety and neuroticism in general )
    LOWERS a person's sex drive, leading to less sex and less gratification from it.

  4. Also there's this:


Study of 94k Americans: Irreligious blacks do much more drug selling and theft than religious blacks

This study , using a sample of ~94k teens and young adults, examined the link between religiosity (church attendance and saying religion is ...