More girls and young women are committing suicide; targeted prevention efforts may help save them, says WVU researcher

More girls and young women are committing suicide; targeted prevention efforts may help save them, says WVU researcher

Teenage girls and young women are increasingly likely to commit suicide, said West Virginia University researcher John Campo. In particular, the rates at which they die by hanging and suffocation have risen markedly.

These were the findings of a study he and his colleagues carried out recently. Their findings appear in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers considered suicide deaths among 10-to-19-year-olds that occurred from 1975 through 2016 in the United States. In total, about 85,000 deaths met study criteria. The researchers discovered that the gender-based gap in suicide rates narrowed over the past four decades, and especially over the last decade, with the ratio of male to female suicides declining most for younger adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14 years.

“This study tells us that the ratio male to female suicide deaths is declining. Girls make proportionally more suicide attempts than boys, but boys are more likely to die by suicide, largely because of choosing more violent and lethal methods, particularly firearms,” said Campo, assistant dean for behavioral health in the School of Medicine and chief behavioral wellness officer at WVU and the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

Over time, however, hanging and suffocation have become increasingly common ways that girls and young women die by suicide. From 1975 to 1991, boys and young men were—on average—about seven times as likely to die by hanging or suffocation as girls or young women, but from 2007 to 2016, males were no more than twice as likely as females to die by this method.

Hanging and suffocation are relatively lethal and violent means of suicide, which makes their growing use among girls and women “especially concerning,” Campo said. “Because most individuals who die by suicide do so on the first suicide attempt, a shift towards use of more lethal methods increases the likelihood of death.”

“We don’t really understand why this shift may be occurring, though it is easy to speculate about the potential impact of social media, since girls tend to use social media more often than boys and are likely a bit more vulnerable to cyberbullying. The most important issue is how to prevent suicide in our youth,” he said.

John Campo, M.D.
John Campo, M.D.

How might counselors, physicians, social workers and other professionals try to slow—or even reverse—this trend toward more lethal suicide methods? Campo and his colleagues recommend intervention strategies that consider the unique needs and experiences of girls and women. They also emphasize the importance of improving access to mental-health services and reducing the stigma associated with seeking help for depression.

Campo added, “We do know that some ways of presenting suicide in the news or entertainment media can be harmful, so finding safer and more effective ways to represent or report on suicide in the media may be of benefit.”


Title: Trends in Suicide Among Youth Aged 10 to 19 Years in the United States, 1975 to 2016

DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.3886


Hero image photo credit: Juan Pablo Arenas



CONTACT: Cassie Thomas, WVU School of Medicine