The Youth Suicide Rate Is on the Rise, and This 23-Year-Old Who Attempted to Take Her Own Life Has Some Thoughts About Why
On New Year’s Eve in 2017, Kaitlyn Buchko felt like everyone in the world was celebrating except for her. Most other 21-year-olds were out celebrating the first New Year's they could legally order drinks at a bar, but not Buchko. She was at home with her parents—and she wasn’t planning on making it to 2018.
Buchko, who is from South Carolina, was battling anxiety, bipolar disorder, and narcolepsy. She tried medication after medication, but she was still struggling. She had also just gotten out of an abusive relationship, and she wasn’t handling the breakup well. It felt like new layers kept getting added to her pain. So as people around the globe popped champagne and threw confetti, Buchko attempted to end her own life.
Buchko’s story isn’t uncommon. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report that shows the suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 rose 56% between 2007 and 2017, after remaining relatively steady from 2000 to 2007. In 2017, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among this age group, behind unintentional injuries, such as car crashes or drug overdoses.
Researchers aren’t sure of the exact causes fueling these alarming statistics. “The increase in suicide is very broad,” Sally Curtain, a statistician at the CDC and an author of the report, tells Health. “It’s across all race groups and virtually every state. We can’t isolate this to one group or area—it’s pervasive across the US.”
Experts believe a rise in depression among adolescents, drug use, stress, social media usage, the visibility of suicide in the media and online, and access to firearms may all be contributing factors, though further research needs to be done to know for sure. In the meantime, Curtain says it’s important to talk to young people about their stressors and experts who work to prevent suicide in order to better understand the crisis.
One reason it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact causes, says Curtain, is that in most cases, there’s not just one thing that makes a person suicidal. That was true for Buchko. It wasn’t simply because of the stress of school or the pressure of social media. Rather, she felt like she “kept getting slammed with another thing to deal with,” she tells Health.
It all started during her junior year in high school. Buchko regularly experienced stomachaches growing up, but they were getting much worse. When they were really bad, she couldn’t eat or even walk. She went to see a specialist and was diagnosed with gastroparesis, or paralysis of the muscles in the stomach. The doctor said it was caused by anxiety.
“At first I thought, ‘But I’m not anxious?’” says Buchko. She had noticed that her stomachaches were worse when she was in a class with a strict teacher or studying a subject she didn’t believe she was good at, but she didn’t think much of it. “I just assumed that happened to everyone,” she says. Her doctor explained that stomachaches can be a symptom of anxiety, and that sometimes anxiety presents as physical pain. “The more I thought about it, I was like, ‘OK, maybe not everyone freaks out the way I do every day when they go to school,” she recalls.
She did what she could to manage her stress, but things only got worse. One night, at the start of her senior year, she got into a fight with her mom about her room not being clean, as she (and most other teenagers) had so many times before. But this time, something was different. The fight sent Buchko into a rage, and she tried to run away.
She got into her car and started driving. She was screaming, crying, punching the steering wheel. “It was the first time I was suicidal,” she says.
Buchko eventually returned home, and her family made sure she got help. She went to her general practitioner, who referred her to a psychiatrist. She was then diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder, a type of bipolar disorder characterized by having four or more episodes of depression and/or mania per year.
Following her diagnosis, Buchko finished the last few months of her senior year. It wasn’t easy, as stress is a trigger for her bipolar disorder, but she did it. She decided to take a year off before starting college to prioritize her mental health. Then, in the fall of 2015, she enrolled as a nursing student at Anderson University in South Carolina.
Buchko was excited to go to college, to get back to “normal.” But it wasn’t long before the stress of freshman year started getting to her. “Stress is the biggest trigger for my bipolar,” she says. “When I get stressed, it flares up, and I get manic or depressed.” On top of that, Buchko was also dealing with narcolepsy, or overwhelming daytime drowsiness, which she wouldn't be officially diagnosed with until a few months later.
At the beginning of 2016, as she was starting her second semester, Buchko’s psychiatrist suggested she take a medical withdrawal. “I was really upset about it,” she says. “It was really hard to feel like I failed at something.”
Buchko felt like her mental illness was derailing her life, and she spent the time after she withdrew from college trying to get better. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a week, went to therapy, tried different medications, and took up horseback riding. She was learning how to control her emotions. But at the end of 2017, everything started to unravel.
She had been in a relationship, and just after Christmas, she and her partner broke it off, which she says sent her “spiraling.” A few days later was New Year’s Eve, when the pain drove her to attempt suicide.
Fortunately, Buchko’s mom found her before it was too late. She survived, and when she woke up the next day, she was immediately grateful to have been given a second chance.
Buchko was almost part of the statistics in the CDC’s new report on the rising youth suicide rate. When she heard the numbers from that report, she wasn’t surprised. “There’s a lot of pressure on youth and young adults these days,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh you’re young, you can’t be that stressed,’ but that’s not true.”
She says the pressure to do well in school and get into a good college is only intensifying for young people. And Jennifer Rothman, manager of youth and young adult initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agrees.
“A lot more is being asked of students,” Rothman tells Health. “They’re trying to juggle being involved in extracurriculars, doing their homework, and keeping their grades up. They don’t have the coping skills to handle that kind of stress. I know many adults who don’t have the coping skills to handle stress like that.”
Interestingly, in a 2018 survey by the American College Health Association (ACHA), college students reported that anxiety and depression are among the biggest factors negatively affecting their academic performance.
Rothman adds that between everything students are involved in, they don’t have much downtime, and whatever time they do get to themselves is spent online. “They’re on their phones, their iPads, their computers,” she adds. Buchko also believes time spent online is a contributing factor. “Social media can be a very negative place, especially if you’re struggling,” she says. Various studies have linked social media to depression in young people, which is also on the rise.
The 2018 ACHA survey determined that 42% of students had felt so depressed in the past year, it was difficult for them to function. Yet the same survey given in 2009 found 31% of students felt that level of depression. More students are, however, utilizing their campus counseling centers, which experts attribute to a reduction in the stigma of having mental illness.
Buchko agrees that mental illness is becoming more accepted, but she says there's still a long way to go, and young people need to be reminded that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. “We get into this mindset that no one understands,” says Buchko. “We feel so alone, but if we would just talk about it, we would realize that we’re really not.”
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