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Teen Depression, Part 2: When a Teens Feels Suicide is ‘The Only Way Out’

by Rima Himelstein, M.D., Crozer-Keystone pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist

Maybe you and your teen heard the recent news report about the 22-year-old who jumped to her death from the George Washington Bridge in New York. It’s not an easy thing to talk about … but we have to talk about it if we are going to prevent it. 

The numbers are staggering: 4,600 young people end their own lives each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Suicide is the third most frequent cause of death among people ages 10 to 24; and each year, 157,000 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at Emergency Departments across the country. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9–12 found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan, and 8 percent reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months before the survey.

The biggest risk factor for suicide is a prior suicide attempt. One-third of people who attempt suicide will try again within a year.

Depression and other factors put teens at high risk:

  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, or a behavior problem        
  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth
  • Family history of suicide
  • Stressful life event or loss
  • Easy access to lethal methods        
  • Bullied   

What pushes teens over the edge? At least 90 percent of teens who kill themselves have some type of mental health problem, but some do not. Most teens do not spend a long time making suicide plans. They may have thought about it or even tried it in the past, but something at the current time “pushes them over the edge.” That something may be getting in trouble, having an argument, breaking up with someone or getting a bad grade; something that makes them have feelings of failure or loss. Most teen suicides are impulsive reactions and are often fueled by alcohol or other drugs.

What can parents do?

  • Restrict teens’ access to alcohol, prescription medications, and firearms: keep them safely locked up.
  • Be direct with your teens. Ask them if they ever have felt so badly that they wish they were not around any longer. Research shows that asking them about depression or suicide does not make them more likely to hurt themselves.
  • Tell your teens that if a friend has talked about suicide to tell an adult right away, even if the friend says not to!
  • Take all suicide attempts seriously. Every action, including superficial cutting or ingestion of a few extra pills, must be taken seriously because a child or adolescent might believe that the action could have caused death.
  • Get help right away. Start with your teen’s doctor. Or, if it is an emergency, call 911, a suicide hotline or go to a crisis center.

This is the second in an ongoing series that will examine mental illness in teens. Rima Himelstein, M.D., a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, blogs regularly on www.philly.com.

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