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Teens, Parents Underestimate Teen Suicide Risk

Study Shows Parents and Teens Believe Suicide Isn't a Problem in Their Communities
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 11, 2010 -- Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens, but teenagers and their parents underestimate the risk or think that it doesn't happen in their own communities, a new study shows.

Researchers conducted focus groups with parents and teens living in urban, suburban, or rural areas in an effort to better understand their attitudes and perceptions regarding adolescent suicide.

They found that parents and teenagers were able to identify many of the most common risk factors for suicide, including depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and relationship problems.

But both groups also tended to underestimate the risk in their own backyards, believing instead that it was a problem in other communities, says study researcher Kimberly A. Schwartz, MD, of UMass Memorial Children's Medical Center in Worcester, Mass.

"The thinking was that it might happen over there, but it doesn't happen to us," she tells WebMD.

Identifying at-Risk Teens

In 2006, 1,771 children and teens between the ages of 10 and 19 committed suicide in the U.S. Teenage boys were four times as likely as teenage girls to die by suicide and they were also more likely to use guns and suffocation to kill themselves. Girls were more likely than boys to use pills.

Among ethnic groups, teenage suicide rates were highest for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, with 15.4 deaths per 100,000 teens. Rates among white, Hispanic, and African-American teens were 4.7, 3.0, and 2.7 per 100,000, respectively.

Schwartz says many of the parents who participated in the focus groups expressed frustration about distinguishing between true warning signs of suicide and normal teen angst.

They recognized that guns and potentially lethal medications should be secured or removed from the homes of teens who are at risk for suicide, but acknowledged that they may have difficulty identifying those teens.

"There seemed to be a disconnect about the importance of securing guns and medications regardless of risk," Schwartz says.

 Both parents and teens wanted more information about how to identify and help at-risk teens.

The study appears in the February issue of Pediatrics.

Screening for Suicide Risk

Schwartz says pediatricians can help by regularly screening older children and teens for depression and other psychological stresses that could put them at risk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends asking adolescent patients about mood disorders, suicidal thoughts, and other risk factors including sexual orientation.

Gay and bisexual teens are especially at risk, with one survey reporting suicide attempts among 28% of gay and bisexual teenage boys and 20% of gay and bisexual teenage girls.

According to the AAP, signs that a depressed teenager might be suicidal include:

  • A dramatic change in personality 
  • Relationship problems, especially with a romantic partner 
  • A drop in grades or quality of schoolwork 
  • Alcohol or drug abuse 
  • A change in eating or sleeping habits 
  • Having trouble concentrating 
  • Giving away prized possessions 
  • Writing notes or poems about death 
  • Talking about suicide, even jokingly

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