In a single year, 800,000 people will die by suicide globally. Currently, the majority of people who commit suicide are men, accounting for around three-quarters of suicide deaths. This disparity is seen in many countries; in the US men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide, in Australia 3 times more likely and in Russia and Argentina 4 times. In the past couple of years, there have been increasing public conservations about male suicide, mental health, and men accessing support. Last year, the UK Office for National Statistics found that suicide was at its lowest rate since 1981. In 2018, however, there were 6,507 deaths by suicide in the UK; this is an 11.8% increase from 2017. Suicide among men had increased by an additional 521 deaths.
Male suicide has received significant and appropriate attention; however, the past six years have seen the rate in young girls and women dying by suicide rising by 83%. This deviates from the pattern in other age groups and the number of suicides among teenage girls now accounts for more deaths than at any other time over the last 40 years. The Gender Gap Paradox is widely discussed and researched, which is the exploration of why more men commit suicide, despite more women attempting suicide and being diagnosed with depression (a common predecessor to suicide). In this article, I want to explore some of the reasons that could contribute to increased suicides among young women.
A seemingly obvious new influence in many people’s lives is the access to and use of digital and social media. Technology and social media giants, such as Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, are under increasing pressure to have a duty of care over their users and control over the content shared. Digital and social media have been linked to low self-esteem, cyberbullying and harmful content (examples being websites that provide information on how to conceal eating disorders and self-harm or triggering images of self-harm and suicide). In 2018, Gabriella Green was found dead. She was 12 and had died by suicide after being bullied online. This year, Molly Russell died by suicide. Molly was 14 and following her death, it was found that she had accessed self-harm and suicide content on social media. These examples demonstrate the danger of social media for young women.
Yet, correlation is not always causality. Does social media impact mental health or are people with mental health conditions more likely to go on social media and seek out harmful content? It may seem like the obvious answer that social media, as a relatively new and almost ubiquitous part of daily life, is the answer to the increasing number of suicides among young women. Before looking at social media, however, we should consider persistence inequalities throughout history for women.
We often understand men’s rates of suicide through the argument of social expectations of masculinity. Men are expected to be stoic, not reach out for help, to avoid “emotion”. This leads to harmful and unhealthy behaviour. Conversely, this same argument can be used to understand what leads women to suicide. Generally, women carry the majority of family and caring responsibilities – for children, romantic partners (in heterosexual couples) and other relatives. According to the Office for National Statistics, women shoulder the responsibility of most care work and care work is often unpaid. This may not explain why there is an increasing rate of suicide among girls and young women, who are less likely to care for children or family members (yet), but it does underpin that expectations of women could be harmful and could lead to poor mental health, such as depression. For young women, this expectation and stereotypes could be difficult and overwhelming, particularly with increasing financial pressures. Additionally, a Girlguiding report found that young girls were already aware of gender stereotypes at young ages, including feeling that their appearance was considered more valuable than achievements or character. In the same way that gender stereotypes harm men’s mental health, they harm women.
As mentioned, there are more financial pressures. Women are more likely to experience poverty than men and always have been; this increases for some groups, such as women of colour or women with disabilities. A Samaritans report for increasing debt, unemployment, low wages, and poor housing all contribute to high suicide risks. Potentially, rising financial issues and the persistence stereotypes and care responsibilities could be harmful to young women. Furthermore, people who live in poverty are the most risk of dying by suicide. As the current statistics show that the rate of suicide among girls is rising; we should consider the effect of childhood on young people. Areas with high levels of deprivation have higher levels of demand for health service but less access to services. Similarly, people who live in poverty are more likely to experience trauma and adversity, but again, without access to support. Mental health can affect anyone, but poverty for girls and young women is detrimental to their health.
Leading on from experiences of trauma, it is necessary to acknowledge sexual violence. Anyone, regardless of gender identity, socioeconomic background or age, can be a victim of sexual violence. Yet, the majority of victims are women. Girls and young women from marginalised groups, such as disabled women or LGBT+ women, are at an increased risk of violence and the risk increases for women who live in poverty. Suicidal thoughts are often considered a natural response when a person experiences trauma. However, when we acknowledge that those who at most risks of being victimised or experiencing trauma are the same people who have less access to support, we unpeel an intersectional understanding of why suicide may be increasing.
Preventing suicide should be seen in the wider context of tackling social inequality. There is no easy answer to why there is an increasing number of girls and young women dying by suicide and equally, no easy intervention or solution. There is not one single explanation – poverty, gender expectations, and sexual violence have existed in women’s lives for most of history. This underpins the importance of considering experiences more widely. Looking at recent developments in young people’s lives and society more generally may provide some answers: social media can increase young people’s access to harm, to being bullied or decrease their confidence and self-esteem. But we should also ensure we are considering all of what girls and women experience. This article is not exhaustive in the risk factors for suicide but demonstrates that social media, gender roles, financial pressures, and sexual violence could all be contributing to women’s poor mental health. Preventing suicide means considering people’s experiences with an intersectional, holistic approach to the underlying factors. Addressing social media, gender stereotypes, poverty, and sexual violence would be beneficial for men and women.