Gap between number of boys and girls who kill themselves narrows significantly in US, study says

Report finds disproportionate increase in youth suicide rates for females relative to males

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Friday 17 May 2019 15:21
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Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10-19 years in the US - with rates historically higher in males than females
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10-19 years in the US - with rates historically higher in males than females

The gap between the proportion of boys and girls killing themselves has narrowed significantly in the US, a new study has found.

A study of 85,051 youth suicide deaths in the US from 1975 to 2016 found a significant reduction in the gap between male and female rates of suicide among young people aged between 10 and 19.

The report from Nationwide Children's Hospital, one of America’s largest paediatric hospitals and research institutes, found a disproportionate increase in youth suicide rates for females relative to males. This was particularly in younger youth aged 10 to 14 years.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 19 years in the US – with rates historically higher in males than females.

The piece of research that found 80 per cent of the 85,051 youth suicide deaths were male and 20 per cent were female.

After a downward trend until 2007, suicide rates for female youth showed the largest significant percentage increase compared with male youth – 13 per cent versus seven per cent for individuals aged 10-14 years and eight per cent versus four per cent for individuals aged 15-19 years.

Researchers found that after 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 these trends seen across all regions of the US.

The study, published in JAMA Open, found the rates of female suicides by hanging or suffocation are approaching those of males – with one of the report’s authors saying this is particularly troubling due to the gender paradox in suicidal behaviour.

Jeff Bridge, director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's, said females have higher rates of non-fatal suicidal behaviour, 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," Dr Bridge said. "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 said future work needed to be carried out to examine whether there are gender-specific risk factors that have changed in recent years and how these causing factors 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," Dr Donna Ruch, a researcher at the Centre for Suicide Prevention and Research who was involved in the report, said.

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

"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," he said. "If parents observe these warning signs in their child, they should consider taking the child to see a mental health professional."

Across the world, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and to attempt suicide, yet the overall suicide rate for men is considerably higher than for women.

In the UK, the male suicide rate is its lowest since 1981 – 15.5 deaths per 100,000 – but suicide is still the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Whereas for UK women, the rate is a third of men’s – 4.9 suicides per 100,000.

But women remain more likely than men to attempt suicide. Adult women in the US reported a suicide attempt 1.2 times as often as men.

However, male suicide methods are often more violent. Access to means constitutes a considerable contributing factor – in the US, six-in-10 gun owners are men – and firearms account for more than half of suicides.

You can contact the Samaritans by calling them for free from any phone for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch.

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