The number of girls committing suicide in Canada has risen in the past 30 years, a troubling trend that's prompting some experts to question the role played by social media.
In a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers from the Public Health Agency of Canada report that on a whole, youth suicide rates have declined since 1980. But closer inspection reveals the decline is evident only in males, while female suicide rates rose from 1980 to 2008.
Another concerning shift is the way young people are killing themselves. Researchers noted a decrease in suicide from poisoning or firearms. Suffocation, which includes hanging and strangling, is now the predominant method of suicide among children and adolescents.
"The trends here are disturbing and that's why we wanted to publish the results," said Robin Skinner, lead author of the report and senior epidemiologist at PHAC. "There's reason to be concerned any time there is a suicide."
Researchers used Statistics Canada mortality data from 1980 to 2008 to reach their findings. They looked at suicide data for children between 10 to 14 and adolescents between 15 to 19.
In 1980, a total of 249 males and 50 females between ages 10 to 19 committed suicide in Canada, according to the study. By 2008, that number had fallen to 156 for males but rose to 77 for females.
The researchers noted it's possible that youth suicides may be underreported because of the chance deaths may be misclassified as "unintentional." The researchers also noted that some children or adolescents who die playing the "choking game" may be misclassified as having committed suicide, but limited evidence suggests this likely doesn't account for any significant rise in reported suicide rates.
Ms. Skinner and Steven McFaull, also with PHAC, suggest the rising prevalence of social media could influence suicide trends in youth suicide.
Social media makes it easier than ever for young people to share their thoughts and connect with others, which isn't always a positive thing. Cyberbullying, when people receive hurtful and even threatening messages online, has become a serious problem across Canada. There are also countless websites where users can share suicidal thoughts and even instructions on how to kill themselves.
"I don't think we quite yet know what the impact of Facebook and Twitter and instant messaging and the ways that people might be making posts about their own suicide ideation …what the effects of those things are for young people," said Jennifer White, associate professor in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria.
Although the study presents some concerning data, Ian Manion, executive director of the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, says it also contains important clues about what Canada has been doing right.
Suicide rates among youth in Canada rose steadily from the 1970s to the1990s, when increases slowed, Dr. Manion said. That coincides with the time when more resources and attention were being dedicated to tackling youth suicide and breaking the stigma, he said.
While this could help explain the decline in suicides among young males, it also raises questions about why suicide rates in females haven't dropped and what needs to be done about it.
Dr. Manion says the trend could be explained in part by the fact more females are being affected by substance abuse or behavioural issues, problems traditionally associated with males.
He added that it's still not well known what impact social media could have on mental health and suicide among young people. But it is possible that suffocation is now the most popular method of suicide because it has been discussed widely in media reports on youth suicide.
Despite growing awareness of the problem and progress that has been made, youth suicide is a serious issue. Dr. Manion argues Canada needs a strategy that includes better and earlier detection of mental illness in order to prevent young people from taking their lives.