Adolescence is a time of significant changes at many levels, from social circles and influences to physical changes. It is also a time, in which mental health symptoms can surface, including eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
A recent study evaluated the rates at which teens think about or attempt suicide, providing results that mimic those of the adult population. The similarity of suicide ideology and attempts between the two segments of the population may be explained by the emergence of mental disorders during the teen years, say experts.
Teens Vulnerable To Suicidal Behavior
The study found that one out of 25 teenagers in the United States had attempted suicide. In addition, one in eight had contemplated it. Because the rates are similar to that of adults, the researchers say that the teen years may represent a particularly vulnerable stage in life for this type of behavior.
The researchers from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., conducted interviews with approximately 6,500 teenagers, in addition to questionnaires completed by the teens’ parents.
The survey asked teens about suicidal thinking, as well as their plans or previous attempts at completing suicide, in addition to symptoms for a range of mental health issues. Approximately 12 percent of the teens had thought about suicide in the past, and four percent had made plans or attempted suicide.
Suicidal Thoughts, Attempts Go Hand In Hand With Mental Disorders
Nearly all of the teens who had contemplated or attempted suicide met criteria for a mental disorder. The disorders commonly observed were bipolar disorder, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or a history of substance use.
Over half of the teens who reported a history of contemplating or attempting suicide were receiving treatment for a mental health issue when they reported the suicide-related thoughts or behaviors. Matthew Nock, a psychologist who conducted research on the study, says that the involvement of the teens in mental health treatment could be interpreted as good or bad news.
While it was encouraging to know that many teens are being treated for mental health issues, it is still troubling because there is no evidence that any treatment prevents suicidal behaviors.
However, experts in treating suicide say that the findings should not be interpreted as evidence that mental health treatment is not effective. The study did not include information to determine whether the teens had shared their suicidal thoughts with a therapist or if suicidal ideology was included as an issue to address in treatment.
Helping Identify At-Risk Teens
The findings, published recently in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, may lead to more research that helps doctors determine which patients are most at risk for a suicide attempt. Once those teens are identified as being high-risk, they may be able to receive treatment for the mental health issues that could be contributing to thoughts about suicide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks suicide as the No. 3 cause of death in people between the ages of 10 and 24. The annual rate of suicide in this age group is approximately 4,600. While girls are more likely to attempt suicide, boys have a higher rate of suicide because they tend to choose deadlier methods.
What Parents Can Do To Prevent Suicide
Though there is no evidence that any particular treatment prevents suicide, parents should work to maintain an open dialogue with their children about mental health concerns. If parents notice that their child shows signs of depression, for instance, they should not be afraid to talk with the child about seeking help.
Nock notes that if a child is exhibiting signs that they may be contemplating suicide, it is time for the parent to seek help. If a teenager is talking about death, for instance, the parent should seek help for that child.
Parents should not be afraid to bring up difficult topics like mental health with their children. Despite the appearance that teens do not want parents’ input, research shows that parents are still a more powerful influence than other factors in the teens’ life.