WebMD Medical News
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.
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,
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.
Schwartz says pediatricians can help by regularly screening older children
and teens for depression and other psychological stresses that could put them
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
If you suspect teenagers might be thinking about suicide, the AAP
SOURCES:Schwartz, K.A. Pediatrics, February 2010; vol 125: pp 221-226.Kimberly A. Schwartz, MD, UMass Memorial Children's Medical Center,
Worcester, Mass.News release, American Academy of Pediatrics, Jan. 11, 2010.American Academy of Pediatrics, "Suicide and Suicide Attempts in
Adolescents," Pediatrics, September 2007.National Institute of Mental Health: "Suicide in the U.S., Statistics and
Prevention."National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
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