Teen Suicide Attempts Up, But Why?

Jun 19, 2014

National survey results (officially the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey) came out this week showing that, in Rhode Island, teen suicide attempts have nearly doubled over the past decade. Unacceptable.

Today, a study came out in the medical journal BMJ suggesting that a drop in antidepressant use among teens may be to blame. NPR's Rob Stein has a great piece on the study and some controversy about its data and findings. In 2003, the FDA started warning the public that antidepressants might increase suicidal thoughts in teens. The study found a big drop in antidepressant use around that time, and a subsequent spike in suicide attempts. The authors think it's because kids who stopped taking the meds probably should have stayed on them, that, in other words, their depression got worse.

But Stein's piece includes comments from other researchers who question the BMJ study's conclusions. First, there could be other explanations for why more teens attempted suicide. Second, they included, in their suicide attempt numbers, drug overdoses. Some of those drug overdoses could have been accidental, and with the rise in prescription painkiller abuse in New England and elsewhere, that seems pretty likely.

Whatever the reason, we're left with the awful fact that more teens have been attempting suicide. According to the RI Health department, the state's emergency rooms see about 500 young people for suicide attempts every year. The state's Child Death Review Team reviews most unexpected or preventable deaths of Rhode Island kids up to age 17. In cases of suicide, they found that about half of those who died had a documented mental health diagnosis. It's unclear how many may have been undiagnosed, and in need of treatment. There are other risk factors for suicide, including external stressors like the loss of a family member, abuse, and being bullied.

But why has the number of attempts gone up? It's not clear to me yet but I will be looking for answers.

In the meantime, if you're a teen or know a teen at risk, here are some resources: