Despair is leading cause of death among teen girls worldwide

May 27, 2015 at 10:00 p.m. ET

Our teenage girls across the world are injuring themselves at unfathomable rates.

Experts once pretty much agreed that the leading cause of death worldwide among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years old was death from pregnancy complications.

And so the world's top minds focused on women's health set out to reduce the numbers of women dying from pregnancy complications. And they did. And their work brought the overall death rate for girls 15 to 19 from 137.4 deaths for every 100,000 girls to the current 112.6. Incredible.

But now attention has turned to a killer that's tougher to address. The current leading cause of death among girls 15 to 19 years old worldwide is self-harm and suicide.

The World Health Organization has just released a report finding that "self-harm" is the leading killer of our girls, ahead of maternal health issues and AIDS.

"We don't really know the extent of the problem," Roseanne Pearce, a senior supervisor at Childline in the UK, told The Telegraph. "Because the coroner often won't record it as suicide. Sometimes that's at the family's request, and sometimes it's simply to protect the family's feelings."

From arranged marriages to genital mutilation, puberty across much of the world can be the end of one's life for a girl and the beginning of another that is tightly controlled by men in control. Many are taken from their families. Many are pulled out of school and forced into domestic servitude and sexual relations with someone they don't know or love, causing our girls to consider the ultimate escape in record numbers.

This is a particularly big problem in Southeast Asia, where, according to Professor Vikram Patel, a leading expert, half the suicides among teenage girls in China and India have nothing to do with mental illness.

"They suffer from logical despair," Professor Patel says.

In the Western world, girls are reporting feelings of self-hatred because they don't meet an impossible standard of beauty. Compounding the issue, according to Dr. Amy Chandler from the University of Edinburgh, is that girls don't have socially acceptable outlets to express their feelings of anxiety.

"Boys have other routes for expressing anxiety and distress," such as fighting. Girls turn to self-harm, Chandler told The Telegraph, "because it's not acceptable for them culturally to express anger in the same way."

Our girls are breaking under the weight of gender discrimination.

The good news is that now that the issue has come to light, we can get serious about finding solutions. Better late than never.

If you suspect someone might be considering suicide, or you have struggled with those thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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