As Youth Suicides Climb, Anguished Parents Begin To Speak Out

Yves here. This is a distressing but important story. The suicides described here were of well-adjusted teens who had friends, activities, and were doing well at school. Not only were there no warning signs, there was no hidden hurt or activities found on their devices or social media accounts after their deaths.

What might be at work? Are kids suffering from existential despair due to the state of the planet? Are they quietly stressed because they internalize early that income inequality means the difference between being a winner and loser is large, and things like whether one goes to college (and what college) matters more than they ought to? Has overly attentive parenting (lack of unstructured time, parents widely obligated to pick children up after school) made children more fragile? Has that old bugaboo, the use of electronic devices, produced weaker friendships and thus a lack of real confidantes? The article presents evidence that suggests that electronic devices could be a culprit, along with cyberbullying (which was not a factor in the examples in this story).

Originally published at Kaiser Health News

Paige Murray says her son Alec “showed no signs of mental distress or depression or anxiety. We think it was an incredibly impulsive act by a hormonal young man.” Alec’s stellar grades were posted online the day of his suicide, she says. (Lauren Casto for KHN)

Alec Murray was 13. He enjoyed camping, fishing and skiing. At home, it was video games, movies and books. Having just completed middle school with “almost straight A’s,” those grades were going to earn him an iPhone for his upcoming birthday.

Instead, he killed himself on June 8 — the first day of summer break.

Caleb Stenvold was 14. He was a high school freshman in the gifted and talented program. He ran track and played defensive cornerback on his school’s football team. Just two months into high school ― and four months after Alec’s suicide — Caleb killed himself on Oct. 22.

The teenagers, both from Reno, Nevada, didn’t know each other. But their families now do, bonded by loss. Their parents are haunted by what they don’t understand: why.

They ― along with mental health experts, school leaders and researchers — are trying to understand why suicide by children ages 10 to 14 has gone up and up. The suicide rate for that age group almost tripled from 2007 to 2017. Newly released 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 16% increase over the previous year.

“Every family needs to have a conversation about suicide with their children — starting very young. Don’t just spring it on them when they’re 10,” says Paige Murray.(LAUREN CASTO FOR KHN)

While experts point to a host of explanations for the alarming rise, scientific proof about cause isn’t conclusive. Some research shows correlations with social media use, cyberbullying and the internet, but studies citing them as a suicide cause are less decisive.

The parents of Caleb and Alec believe impulsivity ― very common in teens because their brains aren’t fully developed — played a role in their suicides.

Kerri Countess, Caleb’s mother, called his suicide “totally unexpected and unimaginable.” He was the youngest of her five sons.

Paige Murray said son Alec “showed no signs of mental distress or depression or anxiety.”

“We think it was an incredibly impulsive act by a hormonal young man,” she said, noting that Alec’s stellar grades were posted online the day of his suicide.

Caleb was a high school freshman in the gifted and talented program. Just two months into high school ― and four months after Alec’s suicide — Caleb killed himself on Oct. 22.

Experts suggest that our celebrity culture, where suicidal thoughts are sometimes romanticized or normalized, also plays a role. Alec’s parents and Caleb’s parents say they need to speak out and warn other families.

When Caleb died, “we wanted everyone to know he died of suicide because if it can happen to my child who was not bullied and did not fit into the reasons people kill themselves, it can happen to anyone,” Countess said. “It was an impulsive and immature act.”

Amy Kulp, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide, said youth, in particular, “have very few experiences with dealing with outside stressors” and “tend to be quite impulsive.”

“If they have a precipitating event like they are bullied or don’t make a team or a friend stops talking to them or something is on social media that they’re embarrassed about,” she said, “they don’t know they will get through it.”

Kulp said the rise in suicide among the youngest adolescents has spawned prevention programs targeting elementary and middle schoolers, teaching things like resilience, wellness, self-care and coping behaviors.

Psychologist Mary Alvord said she’s been seeing “younger and younger kids” in her practice.

“At ages 6, 7 and 8, I’m now seeing kids with depression,” said Alvord, of Rockville, Maryland. “It used to be suicide attempts were more in high school. Now, I’m seeing more completed suicides in middle school and even upper elementary school.”

The CDC data illustrate “a steady consistent increase,” that “deserves our focus and our attention,” said CDC statistician Sally Curtin. “It’s linear and has gone up every single year since 2010.”

The CDC also monitors suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries, based on data from emergency rooms. The latest CDC report published Jan. 31 found that from 2001 to 2016 such visits for those 10 and older increased 42%, with “substantial increases occurring in younger age groups.”

During the most recent study period, from January 2017 to December 2018, such visits increased more than 25%. For girls ages 10 to 14, data from 2009 to 2015 reflects almost a 20% increase in emergency visits for self-inflicted injury.

Youth today are much more familiar with death, said Jonathan Singer, board president of the nonprofit American Association of Suicidology, citing more than 20 years of mass shootings at schools among reasons.

“Death has become public,” he said. “With the internet and social media, when somebody dies, it’s all over your newsfeed. Hundreds of millions knew within minutes that Kobe Bryant had died. Death is much more a part of their generation.”

Among those aiming to reverse the trend is the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Virginia, which examined the 2017-18 school year and determined that 25 states and the District of Columbia required or encouraged school districts to develop suicide prevention policies.

Lee and Paige Murray (on couch) are working with the Reno Behavioral Healthcare Hospital and other agencies to better coordinate local suicide prevention (LAUREN CASTO FOR KHN)

The parents of Alec and Caleb are moving past blame into action.

According to the organization’s policy review, author Megan Blanco said only three of 10 states with the highest youth suicide rates (ages 10-24) had a suicide prevention policy. The youth suicide rate for Nevada — where Alec and Caleb lived ― is 14.4 deaths per 100,000, which is higher than the national average of 10.6 deaths per 100,000. Nevada was not among the 25 states with a prevention policy, she said.

Alvord, the psychologist, has conducted programs to promote suicide awareness as a joint effort of National PTA and the American Psychological Association. She also helped APA develop online advice for parents to talk to teens about suicide.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, co-founded the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

“It’s never a mistake to ask a person about their emotions or whether [someone should] be worried about them,” he said.

“People think depression is always seen as sadness,” Ginsburg said. “While sadness is a very important clue, adolescent depression can present withirritability, rage or anger, instead of just sadness. Physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, belly pain, dizziness, loss of weight ― these are all things that can present as having problems with mood or depression. Parents may miss the signals.”

The day after his death, Caleb’s parents sought answers on his phone and computer, asking their son Matthew, then 16, to search Caleb’s history back to middle school for possible clues. They found one thing: a search for “suicide” the day before Caleb hanged himself.

Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said parents need to realize that kids communicate differently today and any thought of banning social media or phones isn’t realistic or wise.

“Parents often get mad at kids because they’re texting or Instagramming or Snapchatting,” she said. “I worry when kids are not doing those things. If they stop doing that, they’re not having fun.”

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book “iGen,” has a darker view of the effects of media consumption and technology, based upon her research. Studies published in several journals in recent years — including the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Psychiatric Quarterly and Sleep Medicine — found detrimental connections between the omnipresent smartphone, social media, sleep disruption and depression.

The mother of three (including a 13-year-old) believes technology should not be in a child’s room overnight, and she doesn’t believe anyone 10 to 14 “absolutely needs a smartphone.”

Twenge said it’s difficult to determine a reason other than technology for the suicide spike in recent years.

“Phones and smartphones check all the boxes of possible causes,” she said. “It’s something that’s affected a very large number of people and affected their everyday lives. It’s hard to think of anything else that fits that criteria.”

Perhaps the most significant analysis supporting Twenge’s worries appeared this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The evidence from cross-sectional, longitudinal and empirical studies “implicates smartphone and social media use in the increase in mental distress, self-injurious behaviour and suicidality among youth.” The review also found that social media “can affect adolescents’ self-view and interpersonal relationships through social comparison and negative interactions, including cyberbullying; moreover, social media content often involves normalization and even promotion of self-harm and suicidality among youth.”

A Pew Research Center report on cyberbullying released in 2018 found 56% of 13- to 14-year-olds had experienced cyberbullying; more than one-third said they had been the victim of offensive name-calling or false rumors.

Their parents said neither Alec nor Caleb were bullied. But many others are.

“We don’t know if bullying is the cause, or if kids who are depressed make better targets for a bully,” said Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

Henry Kautz, a professor of computer science at the University of Rochester in New York, sees a similar dynamic with technology.

“People have been quick to point to studies that show increases in screen time and increases in depression. But it’s really unclear which way the causation goes,” he said. “Are people who are bullied and isolated seeking refuge in more screen time or is it the other way around?”

The parents of Alec and Caleb are moving past blame into action. The Murrays are working with the Reno Behavioral Healthcare Hospital and other agencies to better coordinate local suicide prevention. Caleb’s parents created, a website dedicated to promoting conversation and human connection in order to prevent teen suicide. They have filed paperwork to create a nonprofit with the same mission.

“Don’t think it’s too young to talk to your kids about if they might feel like hurting themselves. You might think you have time to tell them, but you can’t go back,” Caleb’s father, Storm Stenvold, said. “I don’t know what pain he was in for that time that he felt he needed to do this. He decided on this very quickly. He was rarely alone. He was home less than three hours by himself.”

Paige Murray agrees, which is why she and her husband, Lee, said they weren’t going to be silent about Alec’s suicide.

“Every family needs to have a conversation about suicide with their children —starting very young. Don’t just spring it on them when they’re 10,” she said. “It should be part of everyday conversation about loving yourself and making sure tomorrow is another day. Make sure it becomes a part of everyday knowledge.”

“This wasn’t a conversation that ever entered our house until June 8, but knowing what we know now, it should be. We were blindsided by it,” Lee Murray said. “It’s hindsight. We could have done better, but how would you know?”

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  1. Krystyn Walentka

    First, just look at the chart above, the rise is suicides correlates perfectly with the Great Recession. These children were born during that time of stress and the science is clear that the mother’s stress during gestation plays a large role in the development of the child’s brain.

    IMHO the impulsivity is caused by dysfunction of the most ignored neurotransmitters in psychiatry; Glutamate. There is science and personal history for why I think this. Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, is the only medication that immediately ends my suicidal impulses and it acts by increasing the GABA/Glutamate balance in the brain.

    And take a look sometime at the glutamate they add to food to increase flavor. Yes, they removed MSG, but have protein-isolates and other processes to replace the glutamate. And add the stress of hyper-focused peer pressure through social media. And wow, some of my friends and the schedules they have for their kids…no down time ever.

    Stress increases glutamate because it diverts tryptophan away from the serotonin pathway and into the Kynurenine pathway. This results in a lowering of serotonin and a rise in Glutamate. So we end up with depression (low serotonin) with impulsivity (high glutamate). There are more than enough studies that show a higher kynurenine in the spinal fluid of suicide victims.

    My nephew hung himself in 2008. We have a strong genetic history of mood disorders, but I am sure family stress played a large role. So to me it is very simple, kids and parents are under way too much stress, and it starts in the womb.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Yes, look at that chart. Note the inflection point. Starting in 2007, the suicide rates for males and females began increasing. As did the overall rate.

      1. furies

        Klonopin is a highly dangerous drug. It changes the gaba-a receptors by reabsorbing them over time.

        I have been off more than 6 years after a year and a half taper of 0.5 milligrams *as prescribed* and the post withdrawal syndrome symptoms contine to impact my life in a very negative manner.

        There’s been a recent uptick in exposure of this all too common iatrogenic damage not only from benzodiazepines, but psych meds in general. The “chemical imbalance” theory was a marketing tool.

        Lisa Ling did a special on the benzodiazepine post withdrawal syndrome (also see MTHFR genetic factors) in October last year, making sure not to conflate “addiction” with physical dependence, which happens in a very short time. They are not suppose to be taken longer than 2 weeks. I was prescribed them for over 10 years. Going to rehab is the wrong way to go; they will rip you off waaaay too fast and sub other psych drugs that just exacerbate the situation.

        This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have been thru hell with psychiatry. It did not help, it only made a lot of money for an oppressive system of fake arbitrary labels (that are *indeed* the source of ‘stigma’) and my personal situation, a brutal divorce, even worse.

        There’s also the SurvivingAntidepressants site.

        So so many of us harmed, and killed by these drugs THAT ARE HANDED OUT LIKE CANDY.

        I do have to wonder if some of these kids aren’t also being prescribed “black box” warning drugs…

        1. Krystyn Walentka

          It’s dangerous only if you take it daily. I have been using it for three years and I go months without it.

          I take it only in a crisis. Period. And at most I take .5 mg.

          So please stop with the fear about these useful but wrongly used meds.

          1. furies

            The facts are out there.

            Iatrogenisis is real…informed consent is an issue, and after the hell ive been thru, if I can save someone else from going down that road, I will.

            Thorazine was derived from rocket fuel.

            These are the “medications” on offer.

            1. Krystyn Walentka

              I am not saying that it did not happen to you or that it could happen. But it does not just happen. You need to take it a lot and for a long period.

              By telling people not to take benzos under any circumstance you might end up killing them. Klonopin saved me from suicide several times.

      2. Jim Young

        After watching the trauma suffered by Vietnamese passing through Hawaii in the Spring of 75 after the fall of the south, made more personally troubling to me after seeing how resilient so many were when I served there in 1968, I became more determined than ever to live for the others who couldn’t (our own soldiers, widows, children, as well as the Vietnamese that suffered even more).

        At the same time (1975), we noticed a large influx of Japanese tourists that were essentially forced to take vacations as their government was trying to get them to cut back on extreme work ethics that had them working extreme hours. It seemed many couldn’t handle the forced idleness and ended their lives while on forced vacations (either by walking into the ocean or jumping from high rise hotels).

        A check of the graphs in the wikipedia on Suicide in Japan, shows a gradual rise through the early 70s, up to near 20 per hundred thousand, before going down before another spike in the early 90s.

        The article compares the 1960 to 2007 rates ,with highest peaks in the following order; Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, United States, and Netherlands. They don’t show the age groups, differences in economic conditions and policies such as those that decreased the problems in the 70s Sweden and changed it to a seeming far better balance (but still far more socialist than the Cato Institute, “Sweden: Lessons for America” if you notice their 60+% Union membership, non-adversarial relationship with management, taxes much lower than in the 70s but much higher than ours, and their advantage over us in the 2019 World Happiness Report (they are 7th while we are down in 19th place).

        I’d also point out that they are the most improved among the 7 countries listed, in reduced suicide rates at least up to 2007 according to the 2011 OECD Health Data.

        I hope others far better than me can derive useful long term trend information on the conditions that might have caused the changes from 1960 to 2007.

        I’d like to live for those who couldn’t, by being a bit more useful in encouraging others to keep busy like so many before us that found ways to make the worst of times a bit better.

      3. Arthur Wilke

        To amplify the observation of 2007 being the inflection point I’ve compared (based on multiple regression) the suicide rates for males, female and totals to a imposed linear trend line for three periods, 1999-2018, 1999-2006, and 2007-2018.

        If the actual suicide date ideally followed the trend line, 100% of observed variation would be accounted for.

        For the 1999-2018 period, the data for females was closer to the linear trend line (in terms of accounted), 77.3%, than for men, 40.6%.

        For the 1999-2006 period there was a general downward trend for males and a less distinct pattern exhibited for females. The accounted variance compared with the linear trend line was higher for males (50.3 percent) than for females (20.7%).

        For the 2007-2018 period, though females continued to lag males in suicides, but in both instances the upward trend revealed that the actual suicide rates when compared to the linear trend line was not only similar but very high: females (91.1%) and males (92.1%). Females exhibited a slight below the linear trend line during the 2010-13 period while males exhibited a somewhat fewer suicides than the tend line in the 2014-16 period.

        The correlations between female suicide rates and male suicide rates for the three periods discussed are:

        0.713 1999-2018
        -0.109 1999-2016
        0.844 2007-2018

    2. sare

      First, just look at the chart above, the rise is suicides correlates perfectly with the Great Recession. These children were born during that time of stress and the science is clear that the mother’s stress during gestation plays a large role in the development of the child’s brain.

      If this reason were the cause, then you would have to consider births that were 10-ish years prior — so you would be looking at births around 1997. The Great Recession occurred around the same time that smartphones and social networking took off, and I think social networking is a more likely cause. I believe

      internalize early that income inequality means the difference between being a winner and loser is large, and things like whether one goes to college (and what college) matters more than they ought to

      is a cause as well. I see this among many children.

  2. Justin

    Somehow it always becomes ‘why are suicide rates so high?’ which is the wrong question. Suicide is always an individual thing, yet once it becomes a mere data point in a chart or graph it loses that individual meaning and significance. Now those points can be strung together to make a trend and we can rack our brains for causes and correlations. Is it stress? Is it care? Is it attention? Diet? Economy? Friends? Et cetera, ad infinitum. It becomes like everything else in this world, perfect on the outside and dead on the inside–a glass bowl the world demands to be transparent, forcing everything else deep and out of sight.

    1. Krystyn Walentka

      “Suicide is always an individual thing”

      One could say the same thing about heart attacks or cancer. Your statement makes it seem like is is a failing of willpower, which it is not. There is a link we can use to generalize the causes of suicide like we can for heart disease.

      But we can see, by that graph, it is not an individual thing. There is an outside force causing a rise in suicides.

      Like I mentioned above, what if the Glutamatergic systems plays the role in 90% of suicides? It does not cure the causes of suicides but it will stop a suicide while we fix the stress that is the trigger for that person.

      1. shtove

        Yes, glutamate imbalance is a well defined area of study and quite clear in its immediate effects in needlessly agitating the state of the brain. The causes and treatments, however, are still mostly mysterious.

        Acamprosate is interesting – a treatment that can be highly effective on the imbalance, but not with great reliability and by god knows what pathway. There is one speculation, by process of elimination, that it supplies a calcium ion channel, but all researchers tend to fall back on the see-saw metaphor of keeping glutamate and GABA in balance.

    2. bmeisen

      You haven’t read Durkheim’s “Suicide” a classic in Sociology. He found that suicide is less individual and more cultural.

    3. jrs

      I think there is a tendency to equate suicide with general misery and unhappiness. And well we can all posit plenty of reasons people have to be miserable including the economic system etc.. Yes these are in some cases perfectly legitimate reasons to be miserable!!!

      But I think suicide is really a very different thing, sure many kill themselves out of unhappiness, but many are unhappy and don’t kill themselves. i don’t think it follows quite so automatically as is assumed.

  3. Livius Drusus

    I am very happy that I am not a young person today. From what I see life is a lot harder now than when I was growing up in the 1990s and I don’t think that I am just being nostalgic since I will admit that there were plenty of things that were bad about the 1990s. However, from what I have read and observed there is significantly more pressure on young people to be “perfect” today so it is not surprising that youth suicide rates are increasing. I think economics and technology are the big culprits.

    Economically, there are fewer and fewer good career paths left so the competition for things like acceptance to a good college is much tougher and even if you get accepted to a good school there is an increasingly narrow set of subjects that promise any kind of decent career. Young people are under immense pressure to study subjects like STEM even if they hate it or are not inclined to study those subjects. You could go to trade school but there are limits to the number of trade jobs. The truth is that the economy mostly produces jobs in the low-paying service sector now. The kind of middle-income manufacturing and office jobs that were the meat and potatoes of the old American middle class are mostly gone.

    Technology has also made life worse in many ways. From what I have observed among young people there is a huge emphasis on appearance and outdoing each other in having the coolest social media account with an emphasis on clothes, vacations, fitness, the best looking boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. Comparison existed when I was young but it largely ended when you went home. Now it is ubiquitous thanks to social media. Granted, many young people seem to have adapted to this new world but I imagine that life must be hellish for anyone who is a “misfit” meaning anyone who might be poor or less attractive or who just isn’t cool.

    This study on the rise of perfectionism among young people sheds light on some of the things I wrote about.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’ve no data, but instinctively I think you are right on the issue of social media. In the past, a kid having a hard time at school, or with abusive parents, normally had some sort of mental refuge – their bedroom or a shed, their hobby, music or sport or something. Just somewhere, or something, that could allow them to escape into their own heads without anyone breaking in. Just think of the kid in the book/film ‘Kes’. But now we are followed everywhere with messaging from social media, for kids its inescapable.

    2. fajensen

      Technology has also made life worse in many ways.

      Makes sense: ‘Technology’ in the form of surveillance infrastructure and ‘social’ media makes it possible by ‘older people with money’ to keep controls and shape perceptions that every new generation of teenagers and younger people would normally be rebelling against in order to create a space for themselves to grow in!

      Technology eventually covers society, culture and politics in ‘IT-concrete’ – A place where nothing new can ever happen because it is too expensive to change the models, it is considered too risky to do politics outside of the model’s solution space and, in any case, anything that could challenge ‘the system’ will be picked up at inception by the sensor networks and be either crushed or monetised before anything new emerges from it!

      I think that on the current trajectory, the Internet could turn out to be the worst invention ever!

    3. Moelicious

      +1 to Livius

      As Tyler Cowen says, “Average is Over.” If you’re not exceptional, the path to the middle class is very difficult. And kids – especially kids with older siblings or parents who have been chewed up by late stage capitalism – realize this. Throw in climate change, 24/7 bad news broadcast by the media (including this blog), toxic social media and the typical struggles of adolescence and it’s no surprise so many kids are depressed and suicidal.

      We just started taking my 8 year old son to therapy because he isn’t meeting expectations at school and finding a child therapist with availability in my cloud person neighborhood was a struggle – they are all booked. We know so many kids under 10 going to therapy – defiance, obsessions with death, anxiety, etc.

      Sad times.

      1. coboarts

        Defiance is the cure – one day it will be “tear it all down.” It will begin as youth vandalism and progress into the war bands that will raid into the society that has removed itself from reality. The ones who don’t go down easy will make sure that those they resent go down hard – call it a natural, self-correcting mechanism, the bane of the Echthroi…

      2. Felix_47

        As a parent of four kids I agree with you. It is the fact that the economic outlook and the consequent social outlook is so one sided. Kids are seeing their parents with job loss, benefit loss, oppression by debt etc. and it is the same with their friends. The media presents an unrealistic picture of what this society is. Average is Over is a really meaningful phrase. The measure of a society should be how it serves the average person…….the average IQ in the US is 100. Unless you are well connected an average child is headed for a dystopian future. This represents a societal failure. With the crushing of Sanders I do not think there is going to be a solution for many decades, if ever.

      3. wilroncanada

        My oldest daughter started as a counselor in high school to other teens. She was an outstanding listener. She picked up on a classmate who was being sexually abused by her stepfather, following up with appropriate reporting to police, helped by a teacher/counselor, who herself had not sussed the clues. She has gone on to a PhD in psychology, specializing in children and teens. She has so many clients, that the group practice has had to engage a second child specialist. Her former high school, not in the same city, refers all its students to her for counselling. Bragging aside, she has far more referrals of children and teens in need than she can possibly handle.

  4. Woodchuck

    I live in Quebec and part of my job is developping a system for most suicide prevention centers in the province. The word from everyone working in the field is that their callers get younger and younger, and now they are in some cases actively following kids that are less than 10 years old.

    It is truly alarming, and something the media in general won’t pick up because it’s seen as better to ignore suicide in the news (there’s some valid reasons for that at least).

    Not sure what can be done about it in the short term, because what seems at first glance to be the most obvious causes (social media and technology in general, economics probably to some extent) are not problems that society is going away from but rushing towards.

    1. wilroncanada

      Reserves, on which “First Nations” have to survive with half the investment in education of most provinces, with housing still mostly dictated by a central authority in Ottawa, with non-existent or poisoned water, are petri dishes for child and teen suicide in much of Canada.

  5. antidlc

    Race to Nowhere documentary

    Trailer is at:

    My personal experience…the kids are pressured to take way too many AP courses and the AP courses overburden the kids with work. They have no time to be kids. One of the saddest comments I heard was from a music teacher who music directed the high school musical. She said there were a lot of kids who could not participate in the high school musical because they were so overburdened by their AP courses.

    It doesn’t help that our state provides incentives for schools and teachers to get as many kids in AP classes as possible.

    When I went to high school there were no AP classes. I don’t know about everyone in the class, but my circle of friends turned out just fine…doctors, lawyers, Phd, graduate degrees. And we never had an AP class.

    On a side note..and another story for another day. Look at how many kids take AP classes and how many actually get college credit for those classes. And add up the $$$ the College Board gets every year for those AP tests.

    1. Wyoming

      Well I guess it just depends on where you went to school and when.

      I started HS in the late 60’s in Wyoming and our HS had 2 levels of classes beyond regular level classes. If I remember they were called AP and Honors classes (with Honors being the highest level). So our GPA’s were determined by an A being a 4.0 in a regular class, a 4.5 in an AP class, and a 5.0 in an Honor’s class. One of my brothers was valedictorian one year and his GPA was something like 4.7 (not a 5.0 because there were not enough of those classes). In practice what this meant was that there were 3 levels of many classes in subjects like physics, various math and science courses. These upper level classes were easily the equivalent of college courses and people worked really hard in them. And just like you mentioned our classes were stuffed with students who went to MIT, Harvard, Yale, CalTech and so on. Huge numbers of PhD’s, MD’s and (unfortunately) lawyers.

      So I am leery a bit about this idea that students today are more overwhelmed than in the past and that they work harder. The circumstances of growing up today are certainly different than 50 years ago, but harder? Not sure about that. I lean towards the idea that a large part of the driving of this issue is more related to the seeming futility of the future we are staring in the face (for those who bother to open their eyes anyway). And that futility was not as present then as now.

      1. antidlc

        I can tell you from my personal experience, LOTS of kids are unduly stressed over the workload of AP classes. The workload is insane. And the parents just go along with it, making their kids take a bunch of AP classes and refusing to let them drop. And if you try to drop or refuse to sign up, you are subjected to a lot of pressure.

        I have two graduate degrees and I can tell you that I NEVER experienced the workload these kids are subjected to. I can only give you my experience, but I have spoken to parents whose kids went to different high schools and they have said the same thing.

        The kids have no time to enjoy life. The RACE TO NOWHERE documentary says the same thing.

        My experience in this neck of the woods. YMMV

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I agree with antidic. I tried to discourage my kids from taking AP courses unless they were studying a topic that greatly interested them and where that had already excelled. My daughter was not hard to convince. I suspect her mother [we were divorced and lived apart] kept pressuring her to take AP classes — and this made easier for her to avoid them as an act of defiance. My son was a different matter. He took AP classes in spite of my strong advice and his total lack of interest in the subjects. By the time he left high school he absolutely hated reading and going to school.

        I took a look at the textbooks my kids were using. They were heavy to carry, cumbersome to open up, and full of eye-candy with embedded and lengthy special topic discussions. The quality of writing and the insights the content provided were poor at best. They were compendiums of all the subject topics someone at the State level decided must be covered and tested on the AP tests following some twisted more and more is better value system. They were excruciatingly boring to read and I cannot imagine having to study them — perfect antidotes to curiosity, imagination, and creative thought.

        There were three levels where I went to High School. I always chose the highest level I could qualify for because the material was so much more interesting and challenging than the lower level classes. The amount of homework required was the same or less than that of the other levels which left me with the time to dig deeper into material that interested me — nothing at all like today’s AP classes.

        1. antidlc

          Two stories.

          1) I wanted to sign my daughter up for dual credit (not AP) English. With dual credit, she only needed to pass the class to get college credit. With AP, you get ONE SHOT at “passing”. Your dog could have died that week, you could be sick the day of the test, you could have broken up with your boyfriend, etc., etc. With dual credit, you get a whole semester’s worth of grades that make up your final grade. When I talked to the guidance counselor, I was told, “But she HAS to take AP English.” I told her, “NO. SHE. DOESN’T.”

          2) A relative’s daughter attended a neighboring high school and loaded up on AP courses. I don’t think this girl was involved in any after school activities. The parents bragged about how she was valedictorian and how she saved them so much money passing all the AP tests and getting college credit for them. During her high school years, I never saw this girl smile. And during her speech at graduation, she specifically mentioned how glad she was that she didn’t have to stress out about grades any more.

          “By the time he left high school he absolutely hated reading and going to school.” Wow, I can relate.

      3. Wyoming

        But the point we are supposed to be addressing here is ‘why’ the rise in suicides. Even if high level classes are so much harder now (and I did not come to that conclusion when my kids went through HS 20 years ago) is that the driver for a rise in suicides? Do the statistics show that a disproportionate number of the suicides are students in AP or Honors classes?

        I see lots of suicide calls as I am a volunteer officer with my towns police department. I don’t see any evidence that being academically overworked is a primary cause. I see lost souls. People who see life as futile. Confused people. Lots of issues with drugs of course. And I don’t have an answer. Just questions.

        1. antidlc

          High school students are on anti-depressants, and they will tell you they are depressed because of AP classes.

          Look at the Race to Nowhere documentary.

          1. Dan

            There is substantial evidence that the anti-depressants make many people worse in the long run.

        2. Jeremy Grimm

          I have made several attempts to answer your demand for an explanation of how AP classes could have any correlation with the incidence of teen suicide — and after giving the beginnings of a long novel on the topic … twice. You will not find a nice statistical correlation between attending AP classes, the number of them attended, the mean time spent on homework, or other popular means to arrive at ‘truth’. But there are other ways of understanding besides statistics.

          Rather than explain too many of the complications in the experiences of my kids … here goes …

          Kids in middle-class schools are pushed by parents, peers, teachers, and counselors into taking AP classes. The high schools have their ratings and want to be able to say that every kid went on to Princeton, Harvard, of maybe MIT. Not getting in an AP class has become a badge of failure in school in the eyes of parents, peers, teachers, and counselors and of certain future failure in life. For long hours teenagers are subjected to boredom and pressure in school but AP classes and their demands crystallize the mind numbing monotony and make it palpable, inescapable. It follows you home — disturbs your sleep — eats your weekends. And the work it requires demands too much effort to take a factory worker’s way out of boredom. Now suppose your reward for success in doing well is four more years or even more doing the same only there will be even more of it and it will cost you and/or your parents a lot of money for the privilege. Suppose you went to visit your mom and/or dad’s workplace and saw what they did and it was just like an AP class only worse. You looked around to find out what your options are and other a selection of the flavor of boredom you see no options. [The high school my kids attended didn’t even mention Community College or a trade. Among their friends Community College is considered tantamount to abject failure. Trades are for the real losers — or more often — ‘trades’ what are you talking about?] You look at the rewards at the end of the long years of grinding and it is more of the same with a chance to be tossed aside before you can retire if there still is retirement by then. Suppose you are a teen and you look at the ‘good’ life you can look forward to — are you depressed yet? And I haven’t even mentioned a few other little things like Climate Chaos.

        3. Jeremy Grimm

          I wrote this comment while Skynet pondered an earlier comment:
          You respond to “… lots of suicide calls …” and see “lost souls ,,, confused people … and issues with drugs…”. I believe that may be part of the problem. You don’t get called to the scene until after the problem has manifested. Problems leading teen suicide attempts or teen suicides need to be discovered and tackled long before that. My experience has been that teens are not very communicative. They often offer no signs or symptoms of mental breakdown and even when they do they seldom leave anything tangible a parent can act upon. Suppose a parent senses a that their teen is disturbed who is there to call before the disturbance leads to an overt act?

          You specifically asked about AP classes and asked for their pertinence to the point we are supposed to be addressing here. The short answer is that AP classes embody the essence of the futility our way of life where the rewards for grinding through boredom and pointless efforts is more boredom and pointless effort and the perceived punishment for failure is a complete loss of value in the estimation of parents, peers, teachers, and counselors and the complete loss of self-worth.

  6. IdahoSpud

    Emile Durkheim, In the book “Suicide”, categorizes suicide into three broad categories:

    Selfless suicide, where a squad-mate might throw himself on a grenade to save his buddies.
    Selfish suicide, where one uses their own death to cause harm to another

    The last category, and the one I’m reasonably confident that describes most of the rampaging suicide in modern society, is “Anomie”

    The wiki definition of Anomie is:

    “the condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”.[1] Anomie may evolve from conflict of belief systems[2] and causes breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community (both economic and primary socialization).

    Anomie is sometimes incorrectly called “normlessness”, although that could also be an underlying issue.

    On the surface, these kids seemed to be happy, popular, successful. Perhaps on the inside, they were truly lost. It’s quite likely that Social Media has had a profound impact on how young people view “success”.

    We aren’t all able to share selfies sipping a mai-tais on the beach at Kona.

    1. False Solace

      If only kids were aware of the emptiness of modern work/life I suspect a lot more would catch an early matinee. See the Life After College Starterpack for one (check out the comments on that thread). Fortunately, kids believe what they are told and they are told they can “be anything they want” and they usually believe that’s true until they have their own kids or turn 30, at which point they blame themselves.

      I vividly remember when I entered the workplace after college and realized what I had to look forward to, what adult life actually consisted of. A monotonous grind of the same old gruelingly boring horse puckey day after day, with occasional glimmers of respite, for the next 40 years. Though as Samir says in Office Space, “It would be nice to have that kind of job security”. As stultifying as steady white collar employment is, most of us have much worse to look forward to. Back-breaking labor which is neither valued by society nor well compensated nor respected by anyone. We are discarded by employers when our bodies are used up, when we are no longer attractive enough or cheap enough or servile enough.

      The reason we have so many suicides, as Yves routinely points out, is because communal ties are so weak in our atomized money-worshipping society. Kids are going to sense that. They are keenly aware of their parents’ struggles and despair, and they are going to check out.

      A sick society creates sick kids.

      1. proximity1


        “What might be at work? Are kids suffering from existential despair due to the state of the planet?”

        Yes. (But that’s probably an aspect but I think it is over-done in tne news-media currently. By the way, much of the current so-called “environment-saving” movements send a very clear, very loud message: humanity itself is a blight on the planet. Adolescents hear that clearly and too many of them are still too young and inexperienced to deal maturely with it.)

        “Are they quietly stressed because they internalize early that income inequality means the difference between being a winner and loser is large, and things like whether one goes to college (and what college) matters more than they ought to?”


        “Has overly attentive parenting (lack of unstructured time, parents widely obligated to pick children up after school) made children more fragile?”


        “Has that old bugaboo, the use of electronic devices, produced weaker friendships and thus a lack of real confidantes?”


        “The article presents evidence that suggests that electronic devices could be a culprit.”

        The devices aren’t the” culprits” per se The twisted society which sets the circumstances of these devices (and those who design, make, sell and profit from them) are the culprits. The teens are their victims.


        (author) Guy Debord (1931-1994): La Société du Spectacle (1992) Éditions Gallimard, (Folio)

        (author) Roger Scruton (1944- 2020): An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture | (1998. new ed. 2000) St. Augustine’s Press

        The Uses of Pessimism | Atlantic Books (2010)

        Culture Counts: Faith & Feeling in a Beseiged World | Encounter Books (2008)

        Growing up outdoors through so much of my youth probably contributed more than any other single thing to the chance (lucky?) fact that I found more than enough to occupy my interests before depressive thoughts of suicide could capture and defeat me. I was seldom far from the wooded hills. But almost any wild, natural place, sufficiently far from the town’s lights and paved roads would serve. Since those days, in my mature years, “Shakespeare” (Edward de Vere’s work by that pen-name) has been my comfort and renewal. (These factors, and the fact that I came from people of very stubborn and defiant stock.) Make no mistake: I hate this stupid fucking world. But I have found enough about it to keep me curious and amused in my contempt for modernity.

  7. Eclair

    “Every parent needs to have a conversation about suicide with their child …”

    Growing up Catholic in the 1940’s, we were lectured on suicide, in religion classes and in parochial school. It was considered a ‘mortal,’ ie., the worst kind of sin. Kill yourself and you were pretty much guaranteed to spend Eternity in Hell. Complete with flames, grinning devils with pitchforks, and the company of all the howling bad people since Adam and Eve. As a result, there wasn’t too much in your miserable little life that seemed worse than that.

    I am not advocating the return of Sin and the Heaven-Hell Afterlife mythology, but it did get conversations going, at a very young age.

  8. Dan

    How about suicide acceptance? Here’s Ran Prieur with his always illuminating macro view of the situation:

    February 6. Posted to the subreddit, Can social technologists solve the atomization problem? The author does a great job framing the problem. Condensed:

    The structure of the problem is not man vs machine. It is actually a market-driven process that concentrates society’s top cognitive talent on the engineering problem of how to best undermine an individual’s agency. It’s not a fair fight. We’ve all been taught that we’re sovereign individuals gifted with full agency and capable of choosing what’s best for ourselves at any given moment. But this doesn’t describe the world as it actually exists.

    I think his solutions and predictions are off base. They’re all about communities finding ways to limit the use of technology. But it’s not clear that technology is making us unhappy. I mean, that’s what’s happening, but it’s hard to prove it, and it doesn’t feel that way. We love our devices, and hate the world.

    Here’s how I see it playing out. First, suicide acceptance. I was watching that Cheer documentary, and there’s a bit where someone says, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door.” It occurred to me, nobody says that about life. There’s a door, but we don’t talk about it, and trying to go through it is illegal. So I expect the dominant culture to have stronger anti-suicide messages, while underground movements become bolder in supporting suicide for even healthy young people.

    By the way, my argument against suicide is that the people who want to kill themselves are the same people who intuitively sense how much better life could be, and they’re the ones we need the most.

    Second, the continuing growth of tribalism, which I define as identification with a group, where the group identity is based on conflict with some other group. It’s like a correction against systems that do a bad job of providing meaning, because ingroup-outgroup violence is a source of meaning that’s strong and simple and always waiting under the surface.

    Third, even deeper immersion in technology, and I’m not necessarily against it. I frame it like this: Nature, good; human-made physical world, bad; human-made imaginary worlds, good. The problem is, who’s going to do the grunt work if we’re all gaming? In the best-case scenario, we learn things from imaginary worlds that show us how to make the physical world better.

    What’s probably really going to happen, is that today’s radical threat becomes tomorrow’s new normal. We’ll just get used to the burden that pocket computers put on mental health, and in another 20 years, we’ll all be talking about the threat of biotech.

  9. Jeremy Grimm

    How often do you read this Ran Prieur guy? Do you really think he expresses an “always illuminating macro view of the situation”? Can you briefly explain what he illuminated in the excerpt you embedded?

    1. Dan

      I check his site every few days. Perhaps “illuminating” isn’t the right word. I do enjoy his writing though. I like reading about indigenous cultures, and I don’t get bent out of shape over the suggestion that civilization is a radical departure from the way we ought to live on this earth. Ran, among many others, has explored this in depth. He’s not “neurotypical” and rather than trying to “fix” himself with pharmaceuticals so as to live “normally” in this society, he instead just proudly lives life in his head and tells us all about it. As he once wrote, “The world inside my head is much better than the outside world, and I’m not about to apologize for that.” It’s fascinating, and that’s probably the word I should have used, though I do find much of his stuff quite illuminating as well. I also ignore much of what he writes. And sometimes I get really angry at what he writes. It depends on my mood.

      Civilization Will Eat Itself part 1:

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Thanks, I better understand why you read Ran. When I scanned his site I wondered whether he were entirely sane or as you put it: He’s not “neurotypical”. Even so, as you indicate in your comment — some of what he says did resonate with me. I am not accustomed with the incoherence I sensed in his writing.

  10. Olivier

    I can’t help noticing that the two kids mentioned by name in the article were straight-A high-achievers. It makes sense they would be high on anxiety and also good at hiding it.

    To speculate intelligently we would need a lot more prosopographical data about the suicidees than what is offered here, i.e., merely their age.

  11. Yellopig

    GK Chesterton said: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

    I know people who wouldn’t “expose” their children to fairy tales, because the tales were “violent”. I found this out in conversation with a child who didn’t know why dropping bread crumbs was NOT a good way to mark your way back home. His mother told me that “Hansel & Gretel” was about child abuse, and so off-limits. And I said “But the bread crumb thing is important, practical information he won’t get otherwise!”

    Just a thought I had about children facing things they don’t have the tools to deal with.

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    Has suicide been going up at the same rate among children of all social classes?

  13. Sean Kane

    When looking at the chart one should notice a substantial increase from the Great Recession. But look at the even more dramatic spike up in 2016.. trump is everything that is rotten & toxic about American society and 1/2 the population chose him.
    Sensitive people feel his menace & malice & cruelty in their bones. And look who the GOP belched up to take the presidential nomination if trump didn’t get there: vile “men” like Ted Cruz.

    Of course Hillary was terrible, but terrible in that normal terrible of neo-liberal politicians everywhere since Reagan.

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