Nearly a third of female high-school students said they had considered suicide in 2021, a significant increase since 2019 and a strong signal that teenagers need better and broader mental-health support, according to recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For years, researchers have tracked a concerning dip in the mental health of America’s teen girls. In 2021, nearly 60% of U.S. teenage girls said they felt sad or hopeless—the highest number in a decade, and roughly double the one reported among teenage boys that year. But the problem predates the pandemic. Depression has become more common among young people over the past decade, and in 2015, after years of increases, the suicide rate among teenage girls hit a 40-year high.
Historically, men have died by suicide in greater numbers than women. That’s still true. But the CDC’s latest data, which are based on its regular Youth Risk Behavior Survey, show that suicidal thinking and behavior are more common among teenage girls than boys, and increasing at a faster pace.
In 2021, 30% of female high-school students said they had seriously considered suicide during the year leading up to the survey, while about 24% had made a suicide plan, 13% had attempted suicide, and 4% required medical care related to an attempt. Among boys, those percentages were about 14%, 12%, 7%, and 2%, respectively. And while the percentage of high-school boys who said they had contemplated suicide increased only modestly from 2019 to 2021, the rate increased significantly among girls: from 24% to 30%.
The CDC’s data also show that suicidal thinking was more common among teenagers who did not identify as heterosexual, or who had sexual partners of the same sex or both sexes. Among girls, those identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native were the most likely to report suicidal ideation overall, but the prevalence of suicidal thinking increased significantly—by around 6% to 7% each—among Black, Hispanic, and white female students from 2019 to 2021.
It would be easy to blame the pandemic, and it may have contributed to the trends—but it’s hard to say definitively why these rates are increasing in the manner they are. (When looking at the entire U.S. population, suicide rates decreased during the early pandemic but rose in 2021, data show.) Suicidal behavior is complex and rarely caused by a single event or factor. The disparities among teenagers of different genders, sexual orientations, and racial and ethnic backgrounds also suggest that there is no single approach to suicide prevention that’s likely to be effective. Instead, according to the CDC report, it’s important to develop interventions that are tailored to people of all identities.
Understanding why certain teenagers are more likely than others to think about, plan for, and attempt suicide may help researchers design school- or community-based support programs to help prevent future suicide deaths and attempts. Suicide is preventable with the right support—but, the authors write, it’s important to deliver care in a way that recognizes the unique risk factors facing each person.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.
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Write to Jamie Ducharme at firstname.lastname@example.org