This is Part One of a three-part series of articles related to the alarming rise in teenage suicide, and the efforts to prevent what many have called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” In this segment we’ll analyze some of the problematic behaviors that should alert parents, teachers and physicians to potentially suicidal teenagers.

Suicide Epidemic

Blount Memorial Hospital pathologist, Dr. David Gilliam, officially declared suicide as a cause of death 27 times in 2002. Nine deaths by suicide were recorded in 2001, and the total was 14 in 2000. That makes Blount County’s 2002 suicide rate almost three times the national rate, and more than twice the State of Tennessee’s rate for the year. Captain Larry McMahan, of the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department, says, “My research shows there were eight verified suicides in Sevier County in 2002, and one was a juvenile.”
According to statistics in Dr. J.J. Mann’s book The Decade of the Brain, more than 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year. Tragically, youths are commonly the victims. Reports say that ten times more than those 30,000 people attempt suicide but survive. Identifying teenagers who are at risk for suicide is a major clinical challenge, because clinicians cannot easily distinguish between patients with major depression who will attempt suicide, and those who will not.
As if wars, murders, and parental abuse were not enough to devastate the minds of our young people, there is the self-destruction that comes in the form of suicide. More and more, teens seem to be turning to suicide as a desperate solution to seemingly insolvable problems such as divorce, single-parent homes, poverty, overtaxed school systems, negative peer pressure, and exposure to school violence and illicit drugs.
The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for April of 1995 gave suicide as the third leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15-19 years in the United States. Sadly, that statistic remains the same in 2003. It’s been estimated that for every suicide, there are 50 to 100 attempts at suicide. These figures underscore the urgent need to seek a solution to the suicide epidemic among our young people in the 21st century.

Be aware of
problematic behaviors
In the United States, thousands of teenagers attempt suicide each year. More than 300 to 400 teen suicides occur per year just in Los Angeles County alone. That’s equivalent to one teenager lost every day of the year. Every attempt at suicide is really a cry for help and attention. For many, these feelings of hopelessness and helplessness lead them to attempt what’s called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
How can parents, teachers, social workers, the clergy, and others recognize a teenager who is potentially suicidal? They need to be aware of problematic behaviors in the teenager.

Here are outstanding examples of what
to look for:
• Withdrawal or isolation, especially if the child has always been gregarious and outgoing.
• Signs of self-mutilation.
• Violent behavior, such as punching holes in walls, getting into fights, or self-destructive violence.
• A consistent pattern of running away from home.
• A significant change in sleeping patterns, such as sleeping all the time, or not sleeping regularly.
• Neglect of personal appearance, since most adolescents usually want to look their best.
• Lingering lethargy, a drop-off in schoolwork, or loss of interest in school.
• A loss of interest in recreational activities at home, or school.
• Lack of interest in compliments of praise, or rewards.
• Weepiness, including constant or abrupt crying.
• Expressions of low self-esteem, or feelings of worthlessness.
• Sarcastic references such as, “I’m not going to be around much longer to burden you!”
• Indications he/she is completely overwhelmed, such as, “Life makes no sense!”
• Actions that reflect sudden interest in giving away favorite possessions, or putting his affairs in order, making amends, as if saying, ‘good-bye.’
• Sudden, unaccountable cheerfulness, or a sense of relief after an extended period of depression.
• An abrupt change of personality, grooming, style of dress, or interest in new friends.
• Alcohol, or other illicit drug abuse.

If you suspect a teenager you know is depressed, ask them. The child may feel comforted by your interest and concern. They may want more than anything to talk about how they’re feeling. Just listening may counteract some of their feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
Many wonder, ‘Are young boys more likely to attempt suicide than girls?’ According to the medical research available, the answer is, ‘Not necessarily.’ Although available data shows little difference between the sexes in occurrence of suicide attempts, males are more likely to be victims. About four times as many young males as females commit suicide in the industrialized nations, according to the latest figures from the United Nation’s World Health Organization.
But even these horrific statistics may not tell the full extent of the problem. Statistics on youth suicide, couched in clinical and analytic terms, are surprisingly easy to read. What’s often not seen behind each cold statistic are the shattered families and misery, heartache, pain, and despair of those left behind as they search for reasons why many teenagers attempted that “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Next week, our story will focus on the prevention of teen suicide.

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