America is experiencing a striking rise in suicide among middle school students.
The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014, for the first time surpassing the death rate in that age group from car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014 alone, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.
“It’s alarming. We’re even getting cases involving 8- and 9-year olds,” said Clark Flatt, who started the Jason Foundation in Tennessee 20 years ago to help educate teachers about teen suicide after his 16-year-old son took his own life. “It’s scary. This isn’t an emerging problem – it’s here.”
Researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors — increased pressure on students to achieve academically, more economic uncertainty, increased fear of terrorism and social media — are behind the rise in suicides among the young.
The use of social media is a particular worry because it has amped up bullying among a vulnerable age group. Young students in prior generations left school each afternoon and avoided someone who bullied them until the next day or week. Now, social media allows for bullying 24/7 — and the bully doesn’t even have to be someone the child knows.
“With social media you can’t turn people off,” said Phyllis Alongi, clinical director at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, a group founded by parents in Monmouth County whose children died by suicide.
Social media has also been behind the spread of dangerous phenomenons like the Blue Whale Challenge, which is recently rumored to have encouraged a handful of suicides of young people around the world. The game asks players to attempt daily tasks that include everything from watching horror films to self-mutilation. The parents of a 15-year-old Texas boy said this week that their son was participating in the challenge when he was found hanging in his closet, his cell phone propped up so it could broadcast his death.
There is so much pressure on young people they can become overwhelmed because they haven’t yet developed the coping skills adults rely on. Something an adult easily dismisses because of a lifetime of experience can be hard for a middle schooler to shrug off.
“Middle school is a very difficult time,” said Maurice Elias, a psychologist at Rutgers University and director of its Social-Emotional Learning Lab. It’s a challenging age, as some start puberty before others, and some are discerning their sexual orientation.
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“They are trying to figure out who they are,” Elias said. “They are very sensitive to criticism. So they are particularly prone to suicidal ideation and even action. A lot of times they exaggerate the situation. If it’s a little thing, they think it’s a huge thing. If someone doesn’t like them, they think that nobody will like them forever.”