Students, teachers and parents at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac are mourning the loss of a 16-year-old basketball player who killed himself this week, joining a growing number of youths who commit suicide each year.

Suicide accounts for roughly 16 percent of deaths among people between 15 and 24 years old, making it the third most common cause of death for that age group behind accidents and homicide, according to the American Association of Suicidology. In 2010, the most recent year for which there is data, 4,600 youths between ages 15 and 24 committed suicide, as did an additional 267 youths between ages 10 and 14.

Across all age groups, suicide is the 10th most common cause of death.

The numbers
Age Number Rate per 100,000
10-14 years 267 1.3
15-19 years 1,659 7.5
20-24 years 2,941 13.6
All ages 38,364 12.4
Source: American Association of Suicidology, 2010
Getting help
The warning signs that someone you know may be contemplating suicide include:
» Increased alcohol or drug use
» A feeling that he or she lacks a purpose in life
» Feelings of anxiety, agitation, hopelessness or being trapped
» Sleeping more or less than usual
» Withdrawal from friends and family
» Uncontrolled anger or a desire for revenge
» Reckless behavior or engagement in risky activities
» Dramatic mood changes
You can seek help by calling 800-273-TALK (8255).

"Adults may get depressed and remain depressed for two or three months or longer. ... Adolescents, after several days of depression, may regard their situation as hopeless and don't really wait for the solution," said Michael Peck, a Los Angeles psychologist and expert on teen suicide.

The teen suicide rate has increased over the past decade, from 10.7 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 12.4 in 2010. Among those aged 15 to 24, the rate has increased by 0.1 suicide per 100,000.

Between 10 percent and 20 percent of teen suicides are attributable to cyberbullying.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook also increase the effect cyberbullying can have by amping up peer pressure, he said.

Suicide can be contagious, especially in a small community like a high school, said John McIntosh, a suicidologist and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Indiana University South Bend. Some people who were not suicidal before a death identify with the victim and become suicidal. For those who already were suicidal, the death of someone familiar can romanticize it.

Social media can exacerbate this, according to James Mazza, a school psychologist who specializes in adolescent suicide at the University of Washington.

"Somebody dies of suicide and it's on Facebook and Twitter within minutes," he said. "When you can go on the Internet and find out how to die via suicide, that's just a very different place than we were 20 years ago."

In the past year alone, several area high school students have committed suicide, including three at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax.

To help reduce the risk of another student taking his own life, Steve Stuban, the father of a Woodson student who killed himself two years ago, has advocated reducing the severity of Fairfax County Public Schools' zero-tolerance discipline policy.

Youth suicides are more frequent in the spring, Peck found. He hypothesized that the increase is related to final exams.

Suicides also peak in the warmer months because of high expectations for spring and summer, McIntosh said. When reality doesn't meet those expectations, people can get depressed.

Some suicides are the result of perceived pressure to succeed, said Sara Fritz, who became an advocate on the issue after her 12-year-old son killed himself 13 years ago.

"I should have taken better care of him," Fritz said. "But it's also very hard to know that your child is going to kill himself."