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Suicide attempts increase by up to 51% among 12-25 year olds during Covid era in US 

The age of Covid has seen an increase in suspected suicide attempts among young people aged 12-25 according to US research. Social media platforms such as TikTok have come under intense scrutiny over the impact they can have on the mental health of their users, especially teenage girls.

 In the study, the CDC reported a rise of 51% in suicide attempts in teenage girls.

 Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls surged during the pandemic, with attempts increasing the longer and social distancing orders were in place, according to the  study from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. For teenage girls, the number of average weekly visits to a US emergency department for suspected suicide attempts increased  a staggering 50.6 per cent on the same period in 2019, according to the study. 

The number of suicide attempts also rose for teenage boys, but by a far lesser four per cent. The study stated that the sharp increase started in May 2020, shortly after the worldwide Covid crisis began.

It comes as a report by the Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust earlier this year found that the mental health of teenagers was being damaged by heavy social media use. The research used data from 5,000 young people in England from the Millennium Cohort Study.

According to the research, one in three girls were unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of 14, compared with one in seven at the end of primary school. The study also found that the number of young people with probable mental illness has risen to one in six, an increase from one in nine in 2017. Social media was linked to negative well being and self-esteem, regardless of a young person’s mental state. More girls than boys experienced depression and feelings of hopelessness, the study said.

There are fears that dangerous TikTok trends have specifically contributed to a rise in suicide attempts. The highly addictive video-sharing platform has now overtaken Google as the most popular website worldwide. In March, a group of teenagers in Russia were filmed grabbing hold of a girl at the last second after the teenager tried to leap off a bridge – allegedly inspired by a deadly TikTok trend. The young people passing by spotted the girl’s attempted suicide while walking in Kropotkin, Russia.

In the shocking footage, a young woman can be seen looking out from the bridge and clinging to a fence as the teenagers walk by. She then pulls herself up onto the handrail and swings her right leg over the top of the barrier. She was saved when one of the teenagers looked back and alerted the rest of the group to danger. The teens then rushed to her rescue, grabbing her legs and pulling her back to safety as she emotionally collapsed in their arms.

Authorities voiced concern after the incident in March that the apparent suicide attempt had taken inspiration from a terrifying TikTok trend, which encouraged users to kill themselves.

Local media stated that the horrifying clips promoting suicide were viewed hundreds of thousands of times before they were eventually removed. There is increasing apprehension about the reportedly distressing dark videos surfacing on the popular app. In Russia, the chairman of the Investigative Committee of Russia appealed for a ban on all content promoting suicide.

Tragedy struck in May when a teenager allegedly died after attempting a TikTok suicide prank. The young man by the name of Hamidullah from Swat, Pakistan, purportedly set up a video premise where he would pretend to shoot himself in the head on camera for a TikTok video, effectively faking his own death. The Jakarta Post reported that the viral trend may be responsible for the teen’s death. The 19-year-old used a Tokarev TT pistol, a gun commonly found in Pakistan, in the catastrophic clip.

Newsweek reported that the teenager didn’t know that the gun was loaded. When he put the gun to his head to attempt the suicide prank, he tragically ended up shooting himself and died almost immediately. 

In a statement, local police told the Express Tribune: “This boy was pretending to commit suicide with a loaded pistol. He put the gun on his head and then it suddenly misfired. The unfortunate youngster died on the spot as he was directly hit in the head. There was no chance of survival.”

In the CDC study, published in June, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts included visits for suicide attempts, as well as some nonsuicidal self-harm. The study was not designed to identify the risk factors leading to increases in suspected suicide attempts.

However, researchers cautioned about a potential increase in suicides during the Covid crisis on account of increases in suicide risk factors. 

The study said that young people may be at greater risk of suicide because they have been particicularly affected by mitigation measures during Covid lockdowns, such as physical distancing (including a lack of connectedness to schools, teachers and peers); barriers to mental health treatment; increases in substance use; and anxiety about family health and economic problems, which are all risk factors for suicide. A lack of in-person connections and a subsequent over-reliance on social media could be a prominent factor in the surge in attempted suicides.

A Pew Research Center report from 2018 surveyed 743 teens aged 13 to 17 and 1,058 parents of children in this age group, finding mixed views on the effect social media had on their lives. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed – 24% – said it had a mostly negative impact, compared to 31% who said the impact was mostly positive and 45% who could not decide either way. 

According to the CDC study, the increased number of suicide attempts among teenage girls “correlates with data that shows women are more likely to disclose suicidal thoughts and to seek help for them”.

‘Females are more likely to self-report self-harm or suicide attempts than are males, which may lead to a reporting bias, and a disproportionate number of females coming to the ED for these events,’  child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Neha Chaudhary, told ABC News

The study also noted that the data found in the study might actually underrepresent the true number of suspected suicide attempts because Americans were hesitant to go to hospitals during that timeframe because of lockdowns and fear of catching Covid.

The authors of the report said that their findings highlight the mental toll the pandemic has taken on adolescents, particularly young women. 

“The findings from this study suggest more severe distress among young females than has been identified in previous reports during the pandemic, reinforcing the need for increased attention to, and prevention for, this population,” the authors wrote. 

The U.S. surgeon general issued a recent advisory saying the Covid pandemic has contributed to a surge in depression, anxiety and suicide rates among adolescents. As evidence emerges that suicide attempts, self-harming and rates of depression and anxiety are climbing among young people, many are asking the question: Is social media a trigger for already struggling teenagers? Or is it simply a place where they can freely express themselves and seek out and receive support from friends?

Some commentators, health experts and parents have doubted whether teenagers are well-equipped enough to deal with the pressures of social media, as well as raising concerns about dangerous and violent content which spreads rapidly on platforms such as TikTok.

Statistics show that since the meteroic rise in social media, there has been a significant rise in mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, particularly affecting young people. Since 2009 (the same year social media was made available on mobile phones) to 2022, the number of teenage girls aged 10-14 who were admitted to US hospitals for self-harm increased by 189 per cent, Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, said the pattern coincides with growing use of mobile devices.

In a 2020 Netflix documentary, tech experts sounded the alarm on the danger of their own creations. The Social Dilemma delved into the psychology of social media addiction, and explored how ‘dangerous and destructive’ the power held by social media companies can become, revealing that social media has led to a tripling of self-harm among pre-teens in the US. A 150 per cent rise in suicides was also revealed in what was descriped as a “horrifying” epidemic of misery caused by platforms including TikTok and Instagram.

Social psychologist Prof Jonathan Haidt said in an interview for the documentary that a “whole generation” of kids have been blighted by the new technology.

Prof Haidt said: “There has been a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for American teenagers which began right around between 2011 and 2013.”

He added that: “A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed.”

The documentary also referred to statistics which show an alarming spike in the number of children in the US being admitted to hospital after cutting themselves or otherwise self-harming. It refers to data that shows that for girls aged 15 to 19, there has been a 62 per cent increase since 2009.

Among pre-teens aged ten to 14, the increase is 189 per cent.

“That’s nearly triple,” Prof Haidt said. “Even more horrifying, we’re seeing the same pattern with suicide. And that pattern points to social media.”

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