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Neuroscience News: Social connection plays role in preventing suicide

September is National Suicide Awareness Month, and a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report paints an alarming picture of the mental well-being of young Americans.

The CDC report states that 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds reported seriously contemplating suicide or having suicidal ideation within the previous month. These are statistics that are occurring hot on the heels of 2018 – a year with the highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. since 1941.

The CDC statistics are in line with a report in JAMA Psychiatry highlighting the impact of the necessary social-distancing measures on young people as a consequence of COVID-19, resulting in feelings of isolation, loneliness and boredom. Young people googling “anxiety” or “panic attack symptoms” has skyrocketed since the pandemic, according to the Qualcomm Institute’s Center for Data-Driven Health at UC San Diego. Searches for “panic attack,” “am I having a panic attack?,” “anxiety attack,” “signs of anxiety attack” and “anxiety attack symptoms” were the highest in 16 years.

Young people are managing anxiety about their own future, against a backdrop of racial injustice and financial pressures. Anxiety leaves a lasting psychological and physical impact, with a 2020 report by the European Society for Cardiology revealing that a teen with a history of anxiety and depression is 20% more likely to suffer a heart attack in mid-life, even when controlling for blood pressure, body mass index, general health and parental socioeconomic status.

Anxiety, loneliness, social isolation and economic downturns are known suicide risk factors, and access to lethal means is the most significant risk factor for suicide. Statistica reported a 66% surge in firearm ownership and handgun sales in August, compared to the same time last year, a worrisome development.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is promoting the #BeThe1To campaign on social media, to help inform all about the actions we can take to prevent suicide. The campaign encourages action steps: ask, be there, keep them safe, help them connect and follow up. There is a common misconception that asking about suicidal ideation increases the risk of suicidal behavior, but several meta-analyses and research contradict this assumption.
Google Inc. is trying to do its part to prevent suicide by prominently displaying the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) in place of the images advertising for “shopping” recommendations whenever a suicide-related search term is used.

Social connection is a strong protective factor against suicide, and all, young people in particular, are encouraged to remain connected to friends and family and to be creative in using the many virtual tools available.

There is a possible silver lining to COVID-19: During national emergencies, people pull together, and research indicates fewer suicides.

Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She uses the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes those explanations on her website, teenbrain.info.

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