IN BRIEF

A Narrowing Gender Gap in Youth Suicides

May 17, 2019
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Recent data show a disproportionate increase in the suicide rate among female relative to male youth, highlighting a significant reduction in the historically large gap in suicide rates between sexes.

New research from Nationwide Children’s Hospital finds a disproportionate increase in youth suicide rates for females relative to males, particularly in younger youth aged 10-14 years. The report, which describes youth suicide trends in the United States from 1975 to 2016, appears this week in JAMA Open Network.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10-19 years in the United States, with rates historically higher in males than females. However, recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal female youth are experiencing a greater percent increase in suicide rates compared to males.

Donna Ruch, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s, examined these trends by investigating suicide rates among US youth aged 10-19 years from 1975 through 2016.

The researchers found that following a downward trend in suicide rates for both sexes in the early 1990s, suicide rates increased for both sexes since 2007. But suicide rates for females increased more. There was a significant and disproportionate increase in suicide rates for females relative to males, with the largest percentage increase in younger females. These trends were observed across all regions of the United States.

“Overall, we found a disproportionate increase in female youth suicide rates compared to males, resulting in a narrowing of the gap between male and female suicide rates,” says Dr. Ruch.

When the researchers looked at the data by method, they found that the rates of female suicides by hanging or suffocation are approaching those of males. This is especially troubling in light of the gender paradox in suicidal behavior, according to Jeff Bridge, PhD, director of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s and co-author of the new study.

Dr. Bridge says that females have higher rates of non-fatal suicidal behavior, such as thinking about and attempting suicide. But more males die by suicide than females.

“One of the potential contributors to this gender paradox is that males tend to use more violent means, such as guns or hanging,” says Dr. Bridge. “That makes the narrowing of the gender gap in suicide by hanging or suffocation that we found especially concerning from a public health perspective.”

The researchers call for future work to examine whether there are gender-specific risk factors that have changed in recent years and how these determinants can inform intervention.

“From a public health perspective, in terms of suicide prevention strategies, our findings reiterate the importance of not only addressing developmental needs but also taking gender into account,” says Dr. Ruch.

Dr. Bridge emphasizes that asking children directly about suicide will not trigger subsequent suicidal thinking or behavior.

“Parents need to be aware of the warning signs of suicide, which include a child making suicidal statements, being unhappy for an extended period, withdrawing from friends or school activities or being increasingly aggressive or irritable. If parents observe these warning signs in their child,  they should consider taking the child to see a mental health professional,” he says.

Responsible reporting on suicide and the inclusion of stories of hope and resilience can prevent more suicides. You can find more information on safe messaging about suicide here.  If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741.