Although historically more boys than girls die by suicide, the gender gap in youth suicide is shrinking, according to a new study in JAMA Network Open.
“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,” said study lead author Donna Ruch, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, Ohio.
Dr. Ruch and colleagues investigated youth suicide trends in the United States between 1975 and 2016. The study included 85,051 suicide deaths of youth age 10 through 19.
Researchers identified a downward trend in suicide rates for both sexes in the early 1990s. Since 2007, however, rates of suicide have increased for both sexes—but suicide rates among adolescent girls increased more. Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 showed the largest percentage increase.
The study also found that rates of suicide by hanging or suffocation for girls are approaching those for boys.
“It is troubling that a growing proportion of female youth are choosing this more violent and lethal method, as it is well documented female individuals have higher rates of attempted suicide. Most youth suicide decedents actually die on their first attempt, with the likelihood of death on first attempt being associated with lethality of method,” researchers wrote. “Consequently, a sustained shift toward a highly lethal method such as hanging or suffocation by female youth could have grave public health implications and drive elevations in the rates of female suicide.”
An invited commentary called for further investigation into the effects of social media on cognitive and emotional development of early adolescent girls and its potential role in the increased suicides.
“Social media use is more strongly associated with depression in girls compared with boys, and cyberbullying is more closely associated with emotional problems in girls compared with boys. Other work shows that girls with depression elicit more negative responses from peers on social media compared with depressed boys,” wrote Joan Luby, MD, and Sarah Kertz, PhD, of Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, Missouri.
“These findings suggest that increased social media use may have a more deleterious effect on girls, providing one potential explanation for why young girls may be increasingly vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”
Ruch DA, Sheftall AH, Schlagbaum P, Rausch J, Campo JV, Bridge JA. Trends in suicide among youth aged 10 to 19 years in the United States, 1975 to 2016. JAMA Network Open. 2019 May 17;[Epub ahead of print].
Luby J, Kertz S. Increasing suicide rates in early adolescent girls in the United States and the equalization of sex disparity in suicide: the need to investigate the role of social media. JAMA Network Open. 2019 May 17;[Epub ahead of print].