By Gene Beresin, MD and Steve Schlozman, MD
Here’s the kind of call we get all too frequently:
“Doctor, my son said he just doesn’t care about living anymore. He’s been really upset for a while, and when his girlfriend broke things off, he just shut down.”
Needless to say, situations like this are terribly frightening for parents. Kids break up with girlfriends and boyfriends all the time; how, parents wonder, could it be so bad that life might not be worth living? How could anything be so awful?
For clinicians like us who work with kids, these moments are at once common and anxiety-provoking. We know that teenagers suffer all sorts of challenges as they navigate the murky waters of growing up. We also know that rarely do these kids take their own lives. Nevertheless, some of them do, and parents and providers alike must share the burden of the inexact science of determining where the greatest risks lie.
Suicide has been in the news lately with a flurry of new research and reports and, of course, the high profile death earlier this summer of Robin Williams.
But suicidal behavior among teenagers and kids in their early 20s is different and unique.
So let’s look at a couple of fictional — yet highly representative — scenarios.
Charlie, a 16-year-old high school junior was not acting like himself. In fact, those were his parents’ very words. Previously a great student and popular kid, Charlie gradually started behaving like a different person. He became more irritable, more isolated and seemed to stop caring about or even completing his homework. Then one morning, just before before school, he told his mother that he wished he were dead.
Myths: Common But Distorted
There are countless other examples. Sometimes kids say something. Sometimes they post a frightening array of hopeless lyrics on Facebook. And most of the time — and this is important — kids don’t do anything to hurt themselves. Morbid lyrics and even suicidal sentiments are surprisingly common in adolescence. Still, this does not mean for a second that we take these warning signs lightly. In fact, there is a common myth that asking about suicide perpetuates suicide. There is not a shred of evidence in support of this concern, and in the studies that have been done, the opposite appears to be true. Kids are glad to be asked.
We have to ask. It’s really that simple. But, we ask with some very basic facts in mind. Suicidal thinking, and even serious contemplation of suicide, is, as we mentioned, very common among high school students. In the Center for Disease Control Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey distributed every two years to about 14,000 high school kids in grades 9-12, students are queried about a range of high-risk behaviors, including suicide.
The Underlying Mood Disorder
In 2013, 17% of teens reported seriously considering suicide, and 8% made actual attempts. Each year in the United States, about 15 in 100,000 kids will die by suicide, making suicide the third leading cause of death in this age group. Additionally, we have no idea how many deaths by accidents (the leading cause of death) were, in fact, the product of latent or active suicide.
The greatest risk factors for a teenager to die by suicide include the presence of some mood disorder (most commonly depression), coupled with the use of drugs, or other substances, and previous attempts.
Although research suggests that girls attempt suicide more often, boys more often die from suicide. Add these risk factors together, and it turns out that Caucasian boys are at highest risk.
Some of this is also driven by a still immature brain. Impulsive behavior is notoriously common in teens, and in many cases, it looks as if the act of suicide was the result of a rash and sudden decision. Continue reading