Suicide and Adolescent Girls

For the first time, suicide has replaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for adolescents between 10 and 14 in the U.S.

Think about that: middle school-aged children are already feeling such pressure and stress that they feel suicide is the only answer.

Why isn’t this on the front page of every major newspaper?


Using new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the New York Times reports that while more boys kill themselves than girls in the U.S., the recent increase in the suicide rate was significantly higher for girls than for boys—an alarming nine times higher. And while the total number of children dying from self-harm in the U.S. is relatively low—425 deaths in this age group in 2014—the rapid increase is tremendously concerning.

As I’ve written for Ms. previously, the current available research on suicide among adolescents is not prolific—but there is growing concern that cultural norms and perspectives, as well as the rise of social networking and the earlier-than-ever onset of puberty, are contributing to depression, self-harm and suicide, particularly among young adolescent girls. This concern is not limited to the United States. Around the world, adolescents face social norms—socially and culturally-driven expectations—about who and what girls and boys “should” and “shouldn’t” be. When girls and boys don’t feel they conform to these expectations, their mental health may suffer. And the more these adolescents engage with the rest of the world, through either traditional or social media, for example, the more likely they will be to believe that they just don’t fit “the norm.”

Just as we are grappling with the recently-released data indicating that the suicide rate among 10 to 14 year-olds in the U.S. has caught up with traffic deaths in this age group, so too are those of us who work in global health struggling with the relatively new fact that suicide has overtaken maternal mortality as the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide. Yes, suicide is now the leading cause of death among older adolescent girls worldwide. What is happening here?

Adolescents, no matter where they live, face a host of challenges as they navigate the rocky waters between childhood and adulthood. During adolescence, both boys and girls experience rapid physical growth and changes, accompanied by shifts in cognitive and emotional development. At the same time, environmental factors, including influences from family, peer groups, schools, communities and societal expectations more broadly, can work to either support or hinder young people’s wellbeing.

It is also during adolescence that gender roles—and gender stereotypes–begin to firmly take hold. Gender inequalities that exist in nearly every country in the world can increase girls’ vulnerability to depression – and potentially, to self-harm and suicide. For girls, these inequalities can include inequitable access to resources and education, limited power to make decisions about their own lives and low social status as compared to boys.

As a result of these dynamics, girls in many parts of the world may be forced to drop out of school to take care of household chores, younger siblings, or, in many cases, their own children. Girls may be forced into marriage–as 15 million are each year–before they even turn 18. They may experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member, as is the case for nearly a third of girls aged 15 to 19. Psychological distress, hopelessness and depression may emerge due to a loss of education, violence or limitations on freedom and autonomy.

Meeting the needs of girls is critical to achieving a range of development outcomes, and we cannot meet girls’ needs if we neglect their mental health. But by and large, the global community has failed to understand and address the drivers of poor mental health among adolescents, and we have yet to understand how best to respond to their mental health needs.

There is some good news, in that global attention to these issues is increasing. The promotion of mental health and wellbeing was included in the recently-adopted United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and the World Health Organization’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan for 2013 to 2020 highlights steps toward recognizing and addressing suicide and self-harm worldwide. Despite this recognition, though, there has not been nearly enough funding or attention to mental health during the critical formative period of adolescence.

As we move toward a new administration under a president who claims that “no one has more respect for women” than he does, we can only hope that the U.S. steps up to the task and works to address the gender inequalities that appear to be contributing to depression and suicide among adolescent girls and young women, both in the United States and around the world.

petroni-suzanneSuzanne Petroni is senior director for global health, youth and development at the International Center for Research on Women.

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  1. This is a sad article but this serves as an eye opener to what really is happening in our day. Topics in preventing suicide can help especially the parents of the kids. We can also do our little part by asking directly on a friend or relative if they are thinking about suicide. Even simple listening, that can help big. I hope all together we can help in lowering the suicide rate not just here but all over the world.

  2. Genesis Duran says:

    The article titled “Suicide and Adolescent” authored by Susan Petroni reveals the extent to which society is failing in dealing with issues affecting adolescents. The revelation is alarming because the figures show an increase in the number of deaths among young girls between the ages of 10 to 14 years. Death of adolescent because of suicide has surpassed mortality due to road accidents in the US. The critical question needing a concrete answer is who is to take responsibility for such fatalities being witnessed.
    Finding the solutions to the problems, which are escalating on a daily basis, it is imperative to analyze the root causes of the problems. It is only after discovering the causative agents of the suicidal tendency among adolescent that long-lasting solutions can be formulated. According to Petroni, issues affecting adolescent are related to transitions from youth to young adult. The changes come with new expectations from the environment a person exists. Failure to achieve or accomplish the expectations may instigate mental disturbance, which consequently makes the adolescent susceptible to suicidal thoughts.
    The trends of issues affecting the adolescents are significantly attributed to the use of social media. Indeed, most adolescents engage in social media activities to connect with peers and experience a feeling of belonging to the “right world”. When the expectations of the adolescent fail to hit the supposed target, adolescents may fall into depression. Depression affects the mental stability of an individual. When a depressed person fails to get necessary counseling and guidance from the relevant people such parents, friends, teachers and the society, it may be a shock to receive tragic news of the suicide.
    The suicidal rate affecting adolescent girls in the US are also witnessed in other parts of the world. The issue of gender inequality once again rises. Whereas in the US the societal system integrates all the genders and treats all of them equally, other parts of the world are still grappling with setting the position of females in the society (Branisa et al., 2014). Early marriages, lack of education, job discrimination are some of the factors denigrating and maligning females in such societies. A girl subjected to such cruel and unfair society is likely to be depressed and ultimately commit suicide.
    The problems facing adolescent girls and females worldwide are highlighted; the next important step is mitigation measures for the issues raised. According to Petroni, the world has taken a concerted step by adopting a plan to counter mental health problems. However, such policies need sufficient funding for the plans to remain viable and achieve the expected outcome in future (Williams, 2013). Because suicide is resulting from mental health of individuals, it is important to look for ways of having mentally healthy adolescent girls. Such can be achieved by ensuring that factors causing mental health are reviewed and affirmative action taken.
    The adolescent girls should be educated on the possible changes associated with the lifecycle of humans. The family unit should be a major player in this game as they provide necessary moral support to the adolescent girls (Jayachandran, 2015). The use of social media should be delimited, and its disadvantages explained to the girls. The importance of gender equality should be emphasized; empowering young girls to pursue their dreams and establishing a conducive environment for achieving the goal. The US as a superpower should take a central role in ensuring its foreign policies include social, economic, and political emancipation of young girls and the entire female gender.

  3. Andrea Gonzalez says:

    Unfortunately in today’s world the access to the internet and to social media is limitless, I believe that the start of the problem in adolescence is trying to live up to these unrealistic and unattainable goals. We are constantly brainwashed all around the world to believe that our looks is what is most important. There’s a huge increase in plastic surgery all around the world, Asia having the highest rate, all to become people other than ourselves and look like what is considered beautiful or perfect by society. It stems from fairy tales, to movies, to our favorite celebrities. It’s everywhere! This begins with girls negative self-talk, a decline in self-esteem that leads to negative mental health. Depression and anxiety is more common in female than males and is key to such a high increase in suicide. How can we stop this? Awareness is definitely important and I believe it has to start at home and school. We obviously cannot put a block or cap on what adolescence is exposed to but I think communication, and support is imperative in helping with this stage of transitioning into adulthood. Kids spend most of their time in school and bullying nowadays seems harsher than before and the suicide stories that happen so frequently due to this is sad and alarming. This issue should definitely receive more media attention, and is a topic of the upmost importance, and we should all bring awareness to this because it can be affecting the children in our own homes and we can be completely oblivious to it. A lot of the time we chalk it up to hormones, bad attitudes, and wanting to be grown at that age but these issues can definitely have more depth and become a bigger mental health issue. Home life, teachers, faculty, the education system, these are all settings where we should listen more carefully to our youth, open our eyes, protect our youth against what they’re exposed to and there should be zero tolerance for disrespect. Not only is looks a factor to fitting into “the norm” but having the means to look the part in regards shoes and clothes, sexual orientation, and abusive experiences can also be factors. Talking to our youth is vital, as is acceptance, respect, and support. Having dialogue about these issues so that adolescence can relate to one another and know they’re not alone.

  4. Sancia Metelus says:

    While reading the article “Suicide and Adolescent Girls” I became very sad and shocked about this issue which is trending. I believe that if suicide is the only resolution to circumstances occurring in these young teens life, whether female or male, there is a lack of healthy social and family support towards them. Earlier this year in Miami, where I am from, a young teen girl committed suicide on a Facebook live stream in her foster parent’s bathroom while they were sleeping. It breaks my heart to hear stories similar to this article in my community, and I believe more should be done to prevent these tragedies from occurring. I too believe that factors contributing to self-harm and suicide amongst young teen girls include social norms, depression, bullying, the media, emotional instability, society, family, school and further more. Girls, beginning at age 10 face so much pressure especially on standards of beauty, how they should and shouldn’t look, the perfect body type, and especially during puberty where a lot of change is occurring. It’s not surprising that gender roles and gendered stereotypes contributes to this, inequalities faced at such a young age, and the imbalance of power between boys and girls. It hurts that girls are more likely to develop psychological distress compared to boys due to gender. It’s also alarming that rates are high here in The United States, one of the leading causes of death and worldwide. Similar to the article, I believe early prevention strategies are needed to reduce the chances of a young teen to develop suicidal thoughts and intentions. I hope for continued attention on this issue globally and worldwide. We definitely need emergency steps and action towards reducing suicidal thoughts and intention towards all of our teens. Parents and guardians can also play a role of a listening ear, which can make a difference.

  5. Brenda de la Caridad Tamayo says:

    Suicide has been called the permanent solution to a temporary problem. In the recent years many people have been using such methods to run away from their problems. As stated in the article “suicide rate among 10 to 14 year-olds in the U.S. has caught up with traffic deaths in this age group, so too are those of us who work in global health struggling with the relatively new fact that suicide has overtaken maternal mortality as the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide.” It is of crucial importance to figure out on why is it that the risk of suicide in girls has increased tremendously. It is of importance for girls to make themselves very aware of suicide risk factors and how it can be prevented.
    As read in the book many girls feel the lack of power they have, the inequality against the gender, and expectations. In many countries the access to education may be limited to girls than boys. Also, the difference in culture is a suicide factor. Certain cultures expect so much more from girls and they are being put under a certain pressure which they might want to escape from. Having a sense of value and being able to make one’s choices is important no matter how small they are; many girls aren’t getting that. At times these young girls may not realize how stressed they are until they collapse. When such breakdowns occur they may begin to have suicidal thoughts.
    Girls should be able to act and think for themselves, not have an outer influence telling them what to do. No girl should be forced to drop out of school, have kids, and dedicate themselves to the household. If they have dreams and aspirations by all means they should stay in school and make THEIR OWN life decisions along the way. If boys have the ability to do so why can’t they. It is tragic that the suicide rate for teen girls is so high. Being forced into marriage as stated in the readings can also lead to violence and rape within the relationship, at times it may even come from a family member.
    A support system should be created globally to demonstrate to these girls that they are not alone. If help is needed they should be able to seek it with easy accessibility. Unlike women that have no power when it comes to the legal system and domestic violence crimes. The plan adopted by the United Nation is at least a start in order to help not only teenage girls, but women as well. Hopefully between now and 2020 the statistics in adolescence suicide will drop.

  6. jackie cruz says:

    Growing up in society today our girls face many cultural dilemmas and a fight for equal rights. One thing most young girls have in common today is that cultural norms and perspectives are leading our girls into depression and some to su8icide. I myself had trouble fitting in and never felt I was good enough. I do believe this is a learned behavior and television and the media are to blame. On the tv today our young girls watch the Kardashian and see their beautiful aesthetics that they could never get unless are given that rare gene or have a lot of money to spend on being that perfect women with perfect, hair, skin and curves. It is really sad to see that suicide is the leading cause of death in our younger generation but I can definitely see we got to this point. Society perceives women to be beautiful as well as strive to do well in our jobs and take care of the house and family. This is very difficult to do. I know I do not get to brush my hair every day and that is simply because everything else comes first, before myself. When girls are forced to stay home and do the private sphere work we discussed in class this leads our girls more away from giving them rights and making it difficult for them to leave because of financial difficulties. Then being forced into marriage at a young age and then experience abuse and violence from their partners just fuels them into depression. When our girls are deprived an education and the media teaches them that they are not good enough unless they are a size “0” and a perfect coke bottle body shape this in turn teaches them they are not good enough unless they are in this criterion. Mental health should be of utmost importance in girls schooling now that society has been so critical of the. The numbers show that this is needed. We need to focus on our next generation so that they can teach this to their children after them. There may not be a correct step to take on responding to their mental health needs but it needs to be addressed now, before it’s too late. A small step may not fix everything but it is a step in the right direction.

  7. Joselin Rodriguez says:

    In the United States there is a variety of diverse cultures among the country.
    How can we properly treat mental illnesses and mediate suicide rates when many of us are from different parts of the world holding on to different cultural mindsets and beliefs? For example, some countries believe that suicide or mental illnesses a sign of weakness or it does not exist.
    How do we help those whose cultures believe that mental illness such as depression and anxiety do not exist? How can we target those people, or in this case, young adolescent girls?
    From the examples provided above, the belief of “mental illness is a sign of weakness or does not exist” (places like India) may cause stigmatization. Mental illness stigma is defined as the “devaluing, disgracing, and disfavoring by the general public of individuals with mental illnesses” (Francis, La Rosa, Sankaran, & Rajeev, 2014).
    Stigmatization may direct individuals to suicide due to lack of support from their social environment, lack of resources and professional help, and social stress, to name a few. This may be a factor occurring in the world of the adolescents.
    At such a critical time- emerging from childhood to young adulthood- these adolescents’ girls need support from their families and social environments, as well as educational resources to understand what they are going through.
    So stigmatization may interfere with seeking for proper professional help.
    From a personal standpoint by observation, many people do not believe or take seriously those who claim they are depressed, anxious, or suicidal. It appears to be an “over exaggeration” of some sort or the person is just being “negative”. That mindset proves that others view depression, anxiety, and suicide claims are not real- until death occurs.
    As sad as it is to say, many times these young girls/ kids cannot depend on their family or friends and must find an outlet on their own. By providing resources, educational materials, and help lines, or even pro bono services can really make a difference. Especially to the kids who feel they are alone and cannot speak to anyone about it. These problems are not problems that should stay at home.
    The article was a great eye opener on cultural views and social factors that inter- correlate with mental illness and suicide amongst adolescents, specifically young girls.

    Francis, A., La Rosa, P., Sankaran, L., & Rajeev, S. (2014, November 27). Social Work Practice in Mental Health – Books on Google Play. Retrieved March 05, 2017, from

  8. gabriel valero says:

    It amazes me that suicide has taken over maternal mortality rates among adolescent girls, ages 15 to 19 worldwide. This is a delicate subject since we are dealing with children, the future of the world. As a society I feel we have failed through implementing cultural norms instead of accepting and understanding of differences from one another. Nowadays, with all the social media and TV, we have portrayed and reinforced gender roles and stereotypes, which if not met, are subjected to be judgment by others. Society, not only teens are quick to judge if certain gender roles are not met. Victims to this judgment may also be teens, which at this age of development may be affected emotionally to the extent of actually committing suicide. At this stage of growth, teens need someone they can confide to instead of negative judgment that can arise from gender inequalities or other differences. In countries like El Salvador, where there are high rate of young adolescence woman giving birth as well as high poverty and illiteracy rates are also affected by suicide. All over the world, adolescent woman are resorting more and more to suicide because they can’t deal with the social pressures imposed by society.
    Knowing this astonishing rate of adolescent death by suicide should be a wakeup call for society. I believe it is this lack of acceptance and understanding towards others that have put these young teens in a position where they want to commit suicide. This is a serious issue that should be top priority, where the adolescence themselves should be aware of the magnitude of the situation. This article should bring awareness to teens and all members of society so we can fight together against gender role and stereotype. Instead, we should embrace our differences, accepting and understanding each other for who we are.

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