The suicide rate for kids ages 10-14 nearly tripled in the past decade. Why? And what can we do?

I was 10 when my uncle Doug took his own life. I remember my mom getting the phone call and watching her slump down the kitchen wall, hand over her mouth. I remember her having to tell my dad to come home from work so she could tell him that his beloved baby brother had hung himself.

Doug had lived with us for a while. He was kind, gentle, and funny. He was only 24 when he died.

My uncle was so young—too young—but not as young as some who end their lives. Youth suicide in the U.S. is on the rise, and the numbers—and ages—are staggering.


According to the CDC, the number of 10 to 14 year-olds who took their own lives nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017. In the U.S., suicide is the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents ages 10-24, and the third leading cause of death among 12-year-olds. In at least one state, Ohio, suicide has become the leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 14.

It seems unfathomable that so many kids so young could want to end their own lives, much less actually do so, but that's the reality we're facing. Parents, caregivers and educators have to watch for red flags far earlier than most of us would ever imagine.

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So what is behind this uptick? Why are more kids today dying by suicide than in recent generations?

An increase in mental illness is playing a big role. The vast majority of people who attempt to take their own life are struggling with a mental illness, such as clinical depression. And according to a study from the American Psychological Association published in March of 2019, certain types of mental illness have dramatically increased among young people—and only among young people—in the past decade.

"More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide," said Jean Twenge, PhD, lead study author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. "These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages."

Twenge believes that relatively sudden cultural shifts in the way kids spend their leisure time may be behind the spike in mental illness. "Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations," she said. "These results suggest a need for more research to understand how digital communication versus face-to-face social interaction influences mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes and to develop specialized interventions for younger age groups."

So what can the average American do about this trend? How can we help?

Experts point to multiple avenues for helping prevent, identify, and treat mental illness that can lead to suicidal thoughts, as well as ways to make suicide attempts less likely.

- Encourage basic health maintenance

The first thing our daughter's therapist told us was that therapy for her anxiety wouldn't be nearly as effective without the basics of good sleep, nutrition, and exercise. While none of those things are cures or treatments in and of themselves, inadequate sleep, poor dietary habits, and lack of exercise can all affect mood, sometimes in dramatic ways, making mental health struggles worse. Encouraging healthy habits in our kids creates a foundation for better health overall, including mental health.

- Help kids be conscious of how digital media can affect them

Dr. Twenge emphasized how the ubiquitous screens in kids' lives can impact the healthy habits mentioned above, as well as healthy social interactions:

"First and most important is to get enough sleep. Make sure your device use doesn't interfere with sleep—don't keep phones or tablets in the bedroom at night, and put devices down within an hour of bedtime. Overall, make sure digital media use doesn't interfere with activities more beneficial to mental health such as face-to-face social interaction, exercise and sleep."

The pressures of social media and the potential for bullying and social isolation that goes along with them can also certainly play a role in a child's mental health. We have to be aware of how the online world impacts kids, be wise about when and how we introduce electronics, and help them navigate the digital landscape as they go.

- Be aware of risk factors and watch for warning signs

Boston Children's Hospital offers parents and caregivers a list of factors that put kids at risk for suicide as well as warning signs to look for:

Risk Factors:

  • Mental illness/psychiatric diagnosis
  • Family history of suicide and/or exposure to suicide Family history of mental illness
  • Physical/sexual abuse
  • Losses
  • Aggressive behavior/impulsivity
  • Lack of social support/social isolation
  • Poor coping skills
  • Access to ways of harming oneself, like guns, knives, etc.
  • Difficulties in dealing with sexual orientation
  • Physical illness
  • Family disruptions (divorce or problems with the law)
  • Traumatic event

Warning Signs:

  • Preoccupation with death (e.g., recurring themes of death or self-destruction in artwork or written assignments)
  • Intense sadness and/or hopelessness
  • Not caring about activities that used to matter
  • Social withdrawal from family, friends, sports, social activities
  • Substance abuse
  • Sleep disturbance (either not sleeping or staying awake all night)
  • Giving away possessions
  • Risky behavior
  • Lack of energy
  • Inability to think clearly/concentration problems
  • Declining school performance/increased absences from school
  • Increased irritability
  • Changes in appetite

- Get professional help early

If your child does seem to be exhibiting signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, don't hesitate to get help. It's easy for parents to think that a kid is just going through a phase or that it isn't really "that bad," but there's no harm in seeing a therapist even if you're not sure it's necessary. At worst, mental health professionals can help your child learn about how their brain works and give them tools to manage their thoughts and emotions. At best, early intervention may save a child's life.

RELATED: A huge thanks to those who openly share their mental illnesses. You saved my daughter.

- Talk openly about suicide and suicidal thoughts

Research shows that asking someone if they are feeling suicidal does not lead them to suicidal thoughts. Asking a child who seems depressed if they have thought about wanting to die or wanting to end their life is an important question that may help a child verbalize thoughts they've been afraid to share. Boston Children's Hospital recommends using clear, straight-forward language, such as "I'm worried about you. Have you been having thoughts about wanting to die or killing yourself?" It may be uncomfortable to bring up, but making it a topic of conversation conveys the message that it's okay to talk about it.

- Smash the stigma of mental illness

Many kids hide their true feelings because of the negative stigma surrounding mental and emotional struggles. Talking openly and matter-of-factly about mental illness is an important part of breaking the stigma. No one should feel ashamed or embarrassed to be struggling with their thoughts and emotions, any more than people should feel ashamed or embarrassed to struggle with physical illness. It's important for kids to know that they aren't alone, that these issues are common, that it's not their fault, and that there are ways to treat and manage them. Talking about a therapy appointment should be as normal as mentioning a physical check-up.

- Keep guns out of kids' reach

While there are multiple methods for suicide, firearms are by far the most immediate and lethal. Since access to weapons is a risk factor for suicide, how they are stored in the home makes a huge difference.

As the Harvard School of Public Health notes:

An NVISS study of firearm suicides among youths ages 17 and under occurring over a two-year period in four states and two counties found that 82% used a firearm belonging to a family member, usually a parent. When storage status was noted, about two-thirds of the firearms had been stored unlocked. Among the remaining cases in which the firearms had been locked, the youth knew the combination or where the key was kept or broke into the cabinet.

It's worth noting that families without guns at home have the lowest suicide rates. But for those who do own firearms, safe storage matters.

In a world where children are increasingly taking their own lives, knowing what to look for and how to help is vital. We can also strive to make sure young people know they have support and feel a sense of hope for the future. Suicide touches all of us eventually, so it's up to all of us to help prevent it in whatever way we can.

If you or someone you love is thinking about suicide, call the 24-hr National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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Some 75 years ago, in bombed-out Frankfurt, Germany, a little girl named Marlene Mahta received a sign of hope in the midst of squalor, homelessness and starvation. A CARE Package containing soap, milk powder, flour, blankets and other necessities provided a lifeline through the contributions of average American families. There were even luxuries like chocolate bars.

World War II may have ended, but its devastation lingered. Between 35 and 60 million people died. Whole cities had been destroyed, the countryside was charred and burned, and at least 60 million European civilians had been made homeless. Hunger remained an issue for many families for years to come. In the face of this devastation, 22 American organizations decided to come together and do something about it: creating CARE Packages for survivors.

"What affected me… was hearing that these were gifts from average American people," remembers Mahta, who, in those desperate days, found herself picking through garbage cans to find leftover field rations and MREs to eat. Inspired by the unexpected kindness, Mahta eventually learned English and emigrated to the U.S.

"I wanted to be like those wonderful, generous people," she says.

The postwar Marshall Plan era was a time of "great moral clarity," says Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE, the global anti-poverty organization that emerged from those simple beginnings. "The CARE Package itself – in its simplicity and directness – continues to guide CARE's operational faith in the enduring power of local leadership – of simply giving people the opportunity to support their families and then their communities."

Each CARE Package contained rations that had once been reserved for soldiers, but were now being redirected to civilians who had suffered as a result of the conflict. The packages cost $10 to send, and they were guaranteed to arrive at their destination within four months.

Thousands of Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, got involved, and on May 11, 1946, the first 15,000 packages were sent to Le Havre in France, a port badly battered during the war.

Thousands of additional CARE Packages soon followed. At first packages were sent to specific recipients, but over time donations came in for anyone in need. When war rations ran out American companies began donating food. Later, carpentry tools, blankets, clothes, books, school supplies, and medicine were included.

Before long, the CARE Packages were going to other communities in need around the world, including Asia and Latin America. Ultimately, CARE delivered packages to 100 million families around the world.

The original CARE Packages were phased out in the late 1960s, though they were revived when specific needs arose, such as when former Soviet Union republics needed relief, or after the Bosnian War. Meanwhile, CARE transformed. Now, instead of physical boxes, it invests in programs for sustainable change, such as setting up nutrition centers, Village Savings and Loan Associations, educational programs, agroforestry initiatives, and much more.

But, with a pandemic ravaging populations around the world, CARE is bringing back its original CARE packages to support the critical basic needs of our global neighbors. And for the first time, they're also delivering CARE packages here at home in the United States to communities in need.

Community leaders like Janice Dixon are on the front lines of that effort. Dixon, president and CEO of Community Outreach in Action in Jonesboro, Ga., now sends up to 80 CARE packages each week to those in need due to COVID-19. Food pantries have been available, she notes, but they've been difficult to access for those without cars, and public transportation is spotty in suburban Atlanta.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," says Dixon. For example, one of those calls was from a senior diabetic, she remembers, who faced an impossible choice, but was able to purchase medicine because food was being provided by CARE.

Today, CARE is sending new packages with financial support and messages of hope to frontline medical workers, caregivers, essential workers, and individuals in need in more than 60 countries, including the U.S. Anyone can now go to carepackage.org to send targeted help around the world. Packages focus on helping vaccines reach people more quickly, tackling food insecurity, educational disparities, global poverty, and domestic violence, as well as providing hygiene kits to those in need.

From the very beginning, CARE received the support of presidents, with Hollywood luminaries like Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman also adding their voices. At An Evening With CARE, happening this Tuesday, May 11, notable names will turn out again as the organization celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the CARE Package and the exciting, meaningful work that lies ahead. The event will be hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and attended by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, as well as Angela Merkel, Iman, Jewel, Michelle Williams, Katherine McPhee-Foster, Betty Who and others. Please RSVP now for this can't-miss opportunity.

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The global eradication of smallpox in 1980 is one of international public health's greatest successes. But in 1966, seven years after the World Health Organization announced a plan to rid the world of the disease, smallpox was still widespread. The culprits? A lack of funds, personnel and vaccine supply.

Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

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