AUDIO – SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN –
April 4, 2022 – Trevor’s parents, Angela and Billy had been trying to understand why there are so few therapeutic interventions for children with depression. Trevor, the child of well-off, educated parents, had far better mental-health support than most American children, but was not saved by it. Angela wanted to lobby for legislation to mandate services her son had needed; she considered setting up a center to undertake research and provide clinical treatment. Because I have written about depression, she and Billy encouraged me to address child suicide, and agreed to tell me their story. I talked to those who had known Trevor and began making contact with other bereaved families and with researchers and mental-health workers who are investigating this escalating phenomenon. Angela was right that a larger issue is at stake.
The average age of suicides has been falling for a long time while the rate of youth suicide has been rising. Between 1950 and 1988, the proportion of adolescents aged between fifteen and nineteen who killed themselves quadrupled. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of children aged ten to fourteen who did so more than doubled. It is extremely difficult to generalize about youth suicide, because the available data are so much sparser and more fragmentary than for adult mental illness, let alone in the broader field of developmental psychology.
What studies there are have such varied parameters—of age range, sample size, and a host of demographic factors—as to make collating the information all but impossible. The blizzard of conflicting statistics points to our collective ignorance about an area in which more and better studies are urgently needed. Still, in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States suicide claimed the lives of more than five hundred children between the ages of ten and fourteen, and of six thousand young adults between fifteen and twenty-four. In the former group, it was the second leading cause of death (behind unintentional injury). This makes it as common a cause of death as car crashes. Although it is too early to quantify fully the long-term impact of the pandemic, it has exacerbated the burgeoning crisis. The C.D.C. found that in 2020 mental-health-related visits to hospital emergency departments by people between the ages of twelve and twenty-seven were a third higher than in 2019. The C.D.C. also reported that, during the first seven months of lockdown, U.S. hospitals experienced a twenty-four-per-cent increase in mental-health-related emergency visits for children aged five to eleven, and a thirty-one-per-cent increase for those aged twelve to seventeen. Among the general population, suicides declined, but this change masks a slight increase among younger people and a spike among the country’s Black, Latinx, and Native American populations. Last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that the pandemic had accelerated the worrying trends in child and adolescent mental health, resulting in what it described as a “national emergency.”