Tech and Games Can Help Curb Youth Suicide

In the face of lackluster mental health support, especially for children of marginalized groups, technology and video games can be used to meet young people where they are.
Photo collage showing a still from Minecraft a teenage boy sitting in the shadows and two hands holding a game controller.

One of my most traumatizing moments was when my best friend Terry got gunned down outside my projects. As a 9-year-old in Chicago, I remember always speaking to him about whether he thought we would ever make it out of The Hood. “Of course we will, bro!” he’d always tell me. And yet, he never made it to 10. One day he was here smiling, the next I couldn’t look at my own face in the mirror without crying. Looking back, all I can think of is how much pain I must have been in in order to want to take my own young life.

A troubling statistic from 2018 notes that Black children between the ages of 5 and 12 are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than their white counterparts. I wanted to learn more about youth suicide and what technology and games may be able to do to help us curb it.

Talking about youth mental health and suicide used to carry a historical stigma, but that is changing dramatically. I spoke with Rebecca Benghiat, former president and COO at the Jed Foundation (JED), a leading nonprofit that works to protect emotional health and prevent suicide among our nation’s teens and young adults. Benghiat mentioned some of the tools JED is using to strengthen schools, equip individuals, and encourage communities to raise awareness and understanding and to take action for young adult mental health. Among them, she says, is JED's Mental Health Resource Center.

"By having direct access to evidence-based content, resources, guides, and tips, JED is able to offer essential information on common emotional health issues to show teens and young adults ways they can best support one another, overcome challenges, and make a successful transition to adulthood," said Benghiat. "Questions ranging from 'What do you do if your friend wants to harm themselves?' to 'What if you’re feeling suicidal?' work to normalize, elevate, and encourage conversations around help-seeking and help-giving and let individuals know they are not alone."

Benghiat believes that this can be achieved by meeting young people where they are. This includes at school, home, and in digital spaces like the metaverse. With this in mind, JED issued a comprehensive, new report, titled “Can the Metaverse Be Good for Youth Mental Health?”, to understand the interactions between these spaces and youth mental health while providing actionable recommendations to various stakeholders, including policymakers, tech companies, caregivers, and young people. The report identified a list of rights to which youth are entitled in a metaverse ecosystem, including the creation of a safe, supportive space where psychological safety is priority, a clear understanding of what content is prohibited and the procedures for reporting violations, mental health promotion and supports by developers in partnership with clinical experts, the freedom for young people to be their authentic selves and feel a sense of belonging, and having privacy and ownership of their own data as well as control and creativity of their own content.

“We can expand the benefit and safety of online spaces and work toward a future in which positive mental health is a priority in the design and building of online experiences,” said Benghiat. “At the same time, it is also essential to create communities of care—in the real world—that are purposefully inclusive and supportive, while providing protective factors for the emotional well-being of all youth.”

As for the role that schools play in the lives of students, she highlights JED’s core belief in a comprehensive, public health approach to promoting mental health and preventing suicide. “There’s appropriate data-driven training and decades of impactful results that serve as the blueprint on how to successfully assess, identify, and improve programs and resources at schools to help every student—deliberately and intentionally,” said Benghiat. “We feel strongly that we will be able to say that we’re helping to create a more equitable environment.”

Benghiat noted some common frustrations with the current state of youth mental healthcare in America. “The inability and inequality for some young people to access care is worrisome," she said. "We, as a society, need to look at systems, methods, and resources on the local, state, and federal levels to implement real, positive change during this challenging time.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic violence spiked in what the UN has called a “shadow pandemic,” as violence toward women took a backseat to the much more vocal threat of Covid. As domestic abuse spiked, millions of children who went through distance learning fell off the map, either due to a lack of access to reliable internet access, or simply because they weren’t required to come to school.

Youth Support Systems Are Lacking

Benghiat feels that positive mental health for youth should be the responsibility of both the school and parents. “Education and support look different between schools and home life. There shouldn’t be a hierarchy. We will look differently at home systems than in school systems. We shouldn’t position this, either, as an either-or.” As for schools, she highlights the role they play at JED. “There’s appropriate training for this … We’d love to see faculty and staff show their willingness to have the conversation. We do that kind of thing through lanyards or pins. We feel strongly that we are making a more approachable environment.”

Ending life by suicide is already the second leading cause of death among youth between the ages of 10 and 24, and LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely than their straight peers to end their own lives. Janis Whitlock, founder and director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery in 2003, is also a senior adviser to JED. The research program was created to address nonsuicidal self-injury, a behavior that began appearing about two decades ago and which is now widely understood as a common risk factor for suicidal thoughts and behaviors among youth. When asked how we can change youth suicide risk, Whitlock suggested that it will be vital to help youth understand that they do not need to end their lives to feel more whole and connected to things that matter.

Whitlock said: “The biggest drivers of youth suicide [are] not feeling authentically seen and cared about, and not having a sense of purpose and mattering. Feeling stigmatized and judged also contributes to feeling disconnected and uncared about. If we want to lower risk of suicide in youth, we will need to collectively face the many ways in which society is structured to foster a sense of disconnection and not mattering.”

And where do many young people turn to feel that sense of belonging? The internet. “The truth is that in this landscape, the internet can be a real safe haven,” Whitlock explains. It can be “a place where connection and sense of mattering happens. It’s possible to make vital and healthy connections with other people online, such as happens for some youth in gaming. It can at least give youth a place to start.” There is, of course, the flip side, Whitlock says. Relying on the internet to foster a sense of connection can also lead young people to exposure to harmful or hateful content, or harassment and bullying from others.

Games May Be Able to Help

An indie psychological-horror game called The Cat Lady delves into the deeply-tortured mind of a protagonist who starts off by committing suicide. The game doesn’t shy away from getting really grim, really fast, and in one deeply troubling scenario, it presents the player with the very legitimate premise many suicidal patients face: being told they aren’t capable of knowing what’s wrong with them, because doctors know best.

The game doesn’t try to be preachy or condescending. It gives players a barebones look into how medical professionals have a history of infantilizing or gaslighting those with mental health issues which can precipitate suicide. Obviously, it’s not a game for everyone. But it does shed light on the practice and malpractice present in many settings in America.

Crystal Widado is a mental health organizer and student journalist. In high school, Widado was the COO and writing director of Each Mind Matters, a student-run mental health publication focused on BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled community issues relating to mental health, for which they were awarded the JED Foundation’s 2022 Student Voice of Mental Health Award.

Widado says that they have never found it difficult to speak about their experiences. They know that their words will help others—a great impetus to speak about their trauma. “I entered the whole advocacy space really early, prematurely,” they say. “The gaming community made my story a bit easier to talk about. I was going through a lot of suicidal ideations, and dealing with difficult issues during seventh and eighth grade. And I used Minecraft servers to grow closer to a lot of people, one of whom was a verified moderator. I opened up to her.” At first, Widado shared their own experiences openly for the sake of wanting to help others and feeling desperate for support in their own struggles. Sometimes this included opening up to the wrong communities.” Widado was groomed as a 12-year-old, and this event forever tainted their view on life and made them question the motives of adults. “It was something that shaped me in bad ways, and so I don’t want that part to be rosy.”

Many youth feel that people pay more attention to you once you’ve died, or that there’s glory in it. Many suicides are impulsive—suicidal crisis can be short-lived, and if we can get people through without hurting themselves, they will seek out help and support. Suicidal crises often escalate quickly. According to research, 48 percent of people who made a serious suicide attempt said they had first thought about making that attempt within 10 minutes of attempting, and 71 percent within an hour. This means that, during an acute crisis, a person’s survival may come down to what methods are available to them in those critical moments and how lethal they are. Ninety percent of people who attempt don’t go on to die by suicide later, so part of it is getting them through the moment.

Highly-acclaimed games like Celeste uses 2D platforming and a thoroughly challenging and thought-provoking narrative to present the trans protagonist as more than just a victim of severe anxiety and depression, but someone who can overcome it with the help of the player.

The award-winning, national Seize the Awkward campaign—a joint effort between the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and JED in collaboration with the Ad Council—encourages and equips young people aged 16 to 24 with the tools to start and sustain the sometimes-awkward, always-necessary conversations that support friends who may be struggling with their mental health.

More than anything, it’s important for young people to know that there are resources available to help, especially in a world where the internet itself seems to be out to target young, often marginalized people, because of how toxic and dangerous it can be. We all need help, and children and young adults are no different.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for free, 24-hour support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line. Outside the US, visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for crisis centers around the world.