This is an honest question. I present the data and ask for ideas.
I would be interested in any changes to how suicides are recorded in this time period. e.g. the further back you go, there was presumably more stigma around it and perhaps deaths by suicide were coded as something different?
There are lots of great ideas already in these comments. I have responded to a few of them, somewhat randomly, but will think about them more systematically in coming days and prepare a new D post summarizing some of them and presenting my own current hypotheses concerning the three questions. Keep the thoughts coming, and if anyone is interested in doing some research to test one or more of the hypotheses, let me know.
1) Looking at the table of numbers rather than the graphic, it seems easier (because of the much larger gap between data points in the early decades) to interpret the pattern not as as a smooth-ish curve up and down in the middle of the graph, but rather as an approximate plateau in numbers in both girls and boys all the way from 1980 to 2014--a plateau of 35 years length--with the one year of 1990 as a spiking aberration in a long term trend that is slowly upward. This poses a different couple of questions to me: a) what is the cause of the overall rise across 7 decades and b) what is the cause of the aberrant single spike around 1990?
2) I know social media as an explanation is problematic, but I will say that I teach college and the freshmen frequently self-report social media as an immense source of, or maybe I would prefer to say magnifier of, social stress. I think we shouldn't dismiss their own insights too easily.
3) I recently read Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit. He describes a trend in the US across recent decades towards an ever increasing attribution of an individual's social "success" or "failure" to that individual and their intrinsic merit, rather than to social factors. He also describes an increasing acceptance among people (specifically Americans but also Brits) of this claim as a way to explain their own status in life. He doesn't talk about gender differences, but on a gut level I'd be shocked if this feeling of being responsible for your own social fate didn't weigh more heavily on boys. I think the myth of living in a meritocracy is incredibly mentally destructive. I highly recommend the book in general, but also it might have good insights into the mental state of teens as they see where they are going to land in the social ladder and feel as though the responsibility for that destiny all rests on them.
My hunch would be that since WW2 there has been a gradual restriction of freedom for boys. Greater urbanization, more eyes on them, less time outside, etc. We have denied their evolutionary imperative to gather in packs during their teen years and roam around being annoying and getting into trouble--that period in a boy's life is formative. What we think is a civilizing influence may be backfiring.
Brainstorming... In the early 1990's, we had gay and lesbian rights taking a significant place in political conversations, which likely gave hope to a lot of marginalized youth. We had grunge music, which certainly spoke to a lot of nihilistic young folks and young males in particular, as the lyrics around emotional pain and addiction brought young men's inner conflicts around masculinity and mental health out into the open. We also had the resurgence of feminism including the massive growth and popularity of women's music, grrrl power culture and specifically lesbian visibility. And this might be kind of a reach, but in the end of 1989 the Berlin wall came down. As an American child I remember that being an emotional experience for many, there was likely a lot of tension held in young people's bodies that we were unaware of due to the Cold War being centered by our news outlets.
On point 3, Jonathan Haidt has collated evidence that it is due to social media. https://jonathanhaidt.com/social-media/ . Also see his Substack, starting with
Not all commentators are convinced; see e.g. https://inews.co.uk/news/technology/dont-panic-about-social-media-harming-your-childs-mental-health-the-evidence-is-weak-2230571 .
As a separate point, it’s worth comparing the US to other countries; e.g.
Family breakdown? Divorce?
Some possibilities on the different rates by sex.
1. Women have high rates of depression but are more likely to seek help.
2. As you mentioned, if suicide attempts were included it's possible that the women's rate would be higher than shown. They are just using a less lethal means.
3. Having children and concerns for them if one committed suicide, could be a greater deterrent to suicide for women than men.
It's definitely worth of looking at data from other countries. I've had a look at the Australian data for the same age group and across the same time period, and it's a far more jumpy pattern (although boys still commit suicide way more than girls).
I wonder if accessibility to guns is different in males to females or in different time periods. That could be a research rabbit hole on a red herring, but I’m curious about that.
I also wonder if the decline after 1990 has anything to do with increasing cultural awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ issues. (Don’t misunderstand, we’ve still got a long way to go, but there’s been progress.)
Finally, I wonder how much the gap between males and females is that boys aren’t “supposed” to have feelings and how much that hurts boys/teens/men in general. It seems like a real “one step forward, two steps back” thing culturally, where it seems like we move toward breaking down toxic masculinity and then the backlash comes (especially thinking of the US since 2016…).
Hi! I was 15-19 during the height of the suicide rate, and I wrote about it not long ago, through the lens of the movie Heathers: https://open.substack.com/pub/amyletter/p/teenage-suicide-dont-do-it-heathers?utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
I have heard before that the prevalence of lead in the atmosphere due to leaded gasoline usage correlates surprisingly well with violent crime stats, that's the first thing that comes to mind here as well. The increase from 1950-90 could maybe be from increasing auto ubiquity and therefore increasing lead in atmosphere. Right around 1990 is when significant phase outs of leaded gasoline began and presumably atmospheric lead has been reducing ever since.
I'm a family medicine resident. And I am astounded by how different childhood seems to be, compared to when I was in Junior/High school from 2004-2010. Kids are routinely staying up til 3am watching tiktok. They are comparing themselves to what they are watching on this turbo-charged AI algorithm, which feeds the most addictive content. I can't help but wonder if social media content trained to maximize engagement is contributing to the rise of hopelessness?
This is my big question for you. Because I 100% agree with the Free to Play philosophy without adult interference. Just finished your book. And I wonder how to make sense of the relationship that kids today have with technology. Because this is much different than leaving a computer open for kids to learn how to use.
First, 18 year old males were required to register for the Selective Service in 1980, so that could account at least partially for the rise from 1980 1990. 2001 was 9/11, so the decrease afterward might be a reaction of simply being glad to be alive. The increase after 2016 might reflect the societal upheaval of the 2016 election, the rise in school shootings and the increasing signs of climate change. Again, the dip in 2020 could be both being glad to be alive and having more time out of school. School is incredibly stressful the way we do it, no matter how well a student performs. Environmental factors like diet certainly play a part because Americans consume high-carb, nutrient-deficient food full of chemicals that are banned in Europe. Metabolic disease is rampant because we put corn syrup in everything and high quality proteins and fresh produce are expensive. We eat industrial seed oils instead of natural fats, the lack of which is probably why depression is so common. The depression leads to taking psychiatric medicines, which can be dangerous - being on the right combination can save your life, but finding that balance can take years, and the wrong ones can cause suicidal ideation.
I think it's so important to look at diet when we ask this question. In academic circles looking at Gluten Intolerance it is often highlighted how much more gluten is in our diet than previously, it's added to bulk out all kinds of processed foods, and apparently our flour contains a lower amount of bran and thus a higher amount of gluten than previously, apparently higher proportions of high-gluten low-nutrient wheat is commercially grown. The reason I find this particularly interesting is that I changed my diet due to gastric/bruising reasons, and decades of depression lifted within 2 weeks - as if by magic. I had tried tablets and therapy (both of which evoked my academic interest in studying psychology) - and these helped to some extent, but changing my diet had almost an instantaneous result that was no way on my conscious radar - I had no idea really about the strength of links between nutrition and mental health, I believed myself to be eating a good diet full of vegetables and fruits. So looking at things like inflammation - and within that diet and nutrition as well as pollution and environmental toxins very much needs to be in the conversation. That isn't to underplay the importance of the social landscape, of education, of freedom and play and stress and pressure - personally I think a huge seismic shift needs to happen to balance all of these things to build the better world we want to see.
A very interesting comparison is overlaying a county by county suicide rate by amount of Republicans and Democratic voters. Areas on each map stick out. Without looking, it is fair to assume I will say my theory is Republicans counties have a higher rate. However, in both overwhelming Republican and Democratic counties the rates were at the lowest. Areas where voting rates are tighter or border opposing political parties have significantly higher rates. Oglala Lakota County, with a high Native American population (always, unfortunately, with higher suicide rates, in South Dakota is a eye-popping example. Those mixed counties, specifically in the Mountain States, rates increase faster and areas of similar voters. I started looking at these maps with a theory of urban areas would see a greater increase than rural under your theory. So, as political riffs deepen, so do suicide rates in teens. rates are less where voters agree more. Also, LGBTQ+ have a higher rate of suicides but states with the highest populations of people who identify as LGBTQ+ have lower rates of suicide per 100k (other factors such as age of the population was not looked at). I think a key factor here is KNOWN people who identify as LGBTQ+. So, the states with high populations of people who identify as LGBTQ+, the most at-risk group, have lower suicide rates per 100k people. These states also follow my initial theory of politically clashing areas having higher rates compared to one sided areas.