Study: High Schoolers Are Most Prone to Suicidal Thoughts

September 14th 2015

Laura Donovan

Following National Suicide Prevention Week 2015, Dadaviz released a new chart that reveals when teenagers are most likely to experience suicidal thoughts. Looking at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the image shows that teen boys are most prone to suicidal thoughts during their junior year of high school, when many of them are gearing up for college preparation. Girls experience suicidal thoughts most often in ninth grade.

When teens are most suicidal

According to the data, girls are most suicidal at the beginning of high school, with nearly a quarter of ninth grade females contemplating suicide. Those figures gradually get smaller as girls continue their high school education. As for the boys, less than 10 percent of teen males are suicidal as freshmen, but this number increases and peaks during junior year. By senior year, only 11 percent of boys are suicidal, a decrease of three percent from junior year, although males remain more likely to experience suicidal thoughts in their final year of high school than females.

Why junior year is so stressful

Eleventh grade is often considered the most stressful year for high school students. It is typically the year with the most rigorous course load, as well as the final year that colleges consider on an applicant's transcript. On top of homework and class assignments, high school students also have ACT and SAT preparation to worry about, in addition to their involvement with activities and groups that can help them appear as well-rounded prospective students come application time.

"Junior year is the worst year in high school for many ambitious students aiming for elite and increasingly selective colleges -- a crucible of academic pressure," wrote Wall Street Journal writer Jonathan Kaufman in 2008. "Guidance counselors, parents and college-admissions officers now urge students to start taking advanced-placement courses -- often with a minimum of 90 minutes of homework a night -- in junior year, as well as to start building a portfolio of extracurricular activities and community-service projects to bolster their applications."

At the time, Kaufman interviewed high school junior Jennifer Glickman, who reported feeling so stressed and sleep deprived that she had stomach pains and bad headaches. With a slew of honors classes, Glickman woke up every morning at 6 a.m. for her 7:30 a.m. class and reported having an average of up to five and a half hours of homework per night. With a bed time of 11:30 p.m., she was running off less than seven hours of sleep per night, which research has shown to be detrimental to teen development.

"I knew junior year was going to be pressured," she said. "I like volleyball but if I played it, the practices would mean I would have four hours less for homework... [C]olleges don't want to see you do 10 things. They want to see you doing three things passionately."

Last year, the Atlantic interviewed teenager Salli-Ann Holloway, who reported experiencing severe panic attacks during her junior year of high school that landed her in the nurse's office.

“A lot of people always say junior year is the hardest,” Holloway said. “With people telling me that, it got me in that mindset, and I was taking challenging classes. It was definitely a year when everybody did a lot of growing up and so a lot of things changed with your friendships, the classes and thinking about the future more than we’ve ever had to. That all just contributed and made it worse.”

Cindy Zellefrow, a nurse at South-Western City Schools in Grove City, Ohio, told the publication that she usually sees around five suicidal kids per year but that she treated a dozen kids during the 2013-2014 school year who were experiencing suicidal thoughts as a result of anxiety.

“Some of these kids see things, go through things, experience things, and are surrounded by things it feels like no kids should ever have to be exposed to,” Zellefrow said. “It breaks my heart to see a kid who feels like at this age whatever it is has gotten so big that the only solution is to end their life.”

How body image issues are associated with suicidal thoughts in young teens

A 2013 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that body image insecurities can be tied to suicidal thoughts, particularly among young girls. Dong-Chul Seo, Ph.D., an associate professor at the School of Public Health at Indiana University, conducted the study by surveying 6,504 middle school and high school students in all 50 states from 1995 and 2008. Researchers found that those who considered themselves overweight were more likely to be suicidal, and this was more apparent in girls at age 10 compared to boys the same age. The researchers found a dip in suicidal thoughts among participants ages 15 to 21.

“The findings of the study underline the need for development of effective interventions to address body weight perception to reduce suicidal ideation and as well as attempts, especially among female teenagers,” Seo said in a release at the time.

Robert P. Schwartz, M.D., professor emeritus of pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, did not partake in the research but agreed that the findings made sense.

"[Health care providers] should screen at-risk adolescents who perceive themselves as overweight or obese for self-esteem, depression and suicidal ideation,” he said.

Teen suicide and suicide at large in the U.S.

According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds. It is the tenth leading cause of death in America.

Suicide in the U.S.

Last week, during National Suicide Prevention Week, many people took to social media to expose the severity of the issue and help fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. Here are some good responses to the viral #StopSuicide hashtag:

If you are in need of emotional help and/or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.