"I'd like to get your take on this." That respectful conversation starter with the adolescents and young adults in your family ought to be on your personal agenda soon after the release of two sets of data offering a frightening glimpse into young people's escalating struggles with mental health.
The information came out this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Minnesota Departments of Education and Health. The releases don't appear to have been coordinated. But combined, the findings offer federal- and state-level confirmation of an alarming public health concern.
The Minnesota information was gathered during a once-every-three-years survey of those attending middle school and high school. In 2019, 23% reported long-term mental health or emotional problems, a figure that rose 5 percentage points overall since the 2016 survey.
The survey also asked students about "suicide ideation" — meaning thoughts about taking their own lives at some point. The number of students experiencing this rose across grade levels since the 2013 survey. Six years ago, "20 percent of 11th-grade students reported seriously considering suicide at some point in their lives, compared to 24 percent of 11th-graders in 2019," state officials reported Thursday.
Data from the CDC provided a grim complement to this data, showing that an increasing number of young people nationally are acting on suicidal thoughts. The federal agency released a research brief focusing on death rates due to suicide and homicide among people ages 10 to 24 for the years 2000 to 2017.
While the death rate from homicide, historically a leading cause of death for this age, has declined, the suicide death rate rose sharply over the past decade after a period of stability in this century's first decade. In 2007, the suicide rate in this age group stood at 6.8 per 100,000. In 2017, that figure stood at 10.6 per 100,000. That's a heartbreaking increase of 56%.
The total number of suicide deaths in this age group nationally: 6,769 nationally in 2017, up from 4,320 in 2007.
The reports have spurred understandable alarm in Minnesota and elsewhere. "In the past five to 10 years, we've seen significant increases in the national rates of youth with major depression episodes, the number of youths with suicidality-related emergency department visits, and most tragically, completed suicides,'' said Ezra Golberstein, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "We need to get an understanding of what is driving this so we can reverse this horrible trend."
To their credit, lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz took steps during the last legislative session to increase grants for school-linked mental health services. There is also expanded training for teachers and other school staff to spot suicide warning signs in students. The state is fortunate to have leaders who put a priority on mental health and energetic advocacy organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But clearly, there is still much more work to be done.
Congress also needs to get involved. The CDC data raised understandable questions about the role that social media and technology may have. Better research is needed to understand this and the role that firearm access may play.
The questions need to go beyond policymakers, however. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and trusted family friends have an important role to play in understanding why adolescents and young adults are more frequently struggling with mental health. Older generations can't diagnose or stem this alone. They need feedback from young people to guide them.
A good place to begin: starting a conversation with the young people in your life and sincerely seeking to understand.