Loma Linda Psychologist On The Epidemic Of Teen Suicide

Nov 12, 2019

A report released in October by the CDC shows that teen suicide rates in the United States have skyrocketed in the past decade, becoming the second-leading cause of death for older teens and young adults.

Dr. Jennifer Weniger is a licensed psychologist and the director of clinical training at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center.

She says the uptick in teen suicide rates in the past decade is due to several different factors.

Weniger: “One is the connectivity by technology, cell phone use, but in particular - I don't want to negate some of the positives of cell phone use and connectivity with people, but - cyberbullying and that children, some youths can bully someone and antagonize them in such an anonymous environment sometimes. And I think because adolescents self-construct their self-esteem and how they see themselves is so dependent upon peer influences during this age, so now with the advent of social media teenagers are trying to figure out how to respond with this instant level of connectivity. Sometimes they could be taped or recorded without their consent or things distributed online without their consent, and again the cyberbullying that can go on. And some of the studies are showing that young girls in particular seem to be more vulnerable to that, teenage girls. So that's kind of a new phenomena that we as a society are trying to figure out the best we can because it's a huge stressor for some young people to deal with.”

Another factor is adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect.

Weniger: “The other risk factors that we know for teenagers are being a victim of an abusive or neglectful situation - if they've been physically abused, emotionally abused, sexually abused, maltreatment, we call them adverse childhood events and also just relationship conflicts in general, or if they're having any conflictual relationships at home or relationships at school that can increase their stress levels as well.”

Weniger says there are a few ways to address teen suicide. One is increasing face-to-face interactions with teens.

Weniger: “So a few things that we can do to help prevent suicide is one, actually the CDC recognizes that face-to-face and social connectedness is one of the greatest things that we can do to prevent suicide. Obviously there's a lot of online connectivity between adolescents right now, but just to increase face-to-face, supportive connections between people, increase their sense of belonging in communities.”

Another is an emphasis on problem-solving skills.

Weniger: “Another emphasis is increase on problem-solving skills, a lot of times we talk about coping skills but people don't necessarily just want to cope with their problems, they want solutions to their problems. And I think teenagers feel the same way, and to help teach them problem-solving skills and looking at different options and avenues and try and give them some resources for that can be super helpful.”

Weniger says the last thing we can do to address teen suicide is institute regular mental health check-ups.

Weniger: “The other, I think one of the biggest things that we need to do not only for adolescents but for adults too is start instituting mental health check-ups. Because it's really frustrating as a society that we recognize check-ups with multiple different professions such as children go and see their pediatrician once a year, they go and see their dentist every six months, they go and see their optometrist every two years. Why aren't mental health professionals on that list? Teenagers need to have required check-ups with a mental health professional at least once a year if not twice a year, just like they do with any other profession or areas of their health that are important, and mental health is important just like any kind of medical condition.”