Title: Teen & Young Adult Suicide: Light & Shadows
Author: Nancy Merritt/td>
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: January 2002
Catalog Number: 174

..Life Lines

To be or
not to be?

It’s a question
that’s thundered throughout history and one that pulses inside
each of us, at one time or another in our lives.

Still, never
has its pulse been more profound or its pull more compelling
than for young people in America today.

Just consider
some numbers. They’re taken from recent surveys of college
and high school students by the U.S. Centers for Disease

  • 27 percent
    of high-school students said they’d “thought seriously”
    about suicide in the past year; 8 percent said they’d actually
    tried to kill themselves.
  • 10.3 percent
    of U.S. college students admitted serious thoughts of suicide;
    6.7 percent had a suicide plan.

And today’s
teen-and-young-adult suicide epidemic isn’t just a statistical
blip, either, or a case of media hype.

The numbers
of both suicide attempts and fatalities have risen steadily in
the ’90s, following similar jumps in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Today, an estimated
276,000 kids between the ages of 14 and 17 try killing themselves
each year, and more than 5,000 succeed. The current rate is four
times that of 1950.

The numbers
are disturbing, and yet they only partially convey the tragedy
of teen and young adult suicide, since every victim leaves a
hole in the fabric of their communities and schools, and an ongoing
ache in the hearts of their families and friends.

The epidemic
is cause for concern — and for a new commitment to ending its
spread. Because the real tragedy of youthful suicide is that
it often can be prevented, if we know what to look for and care
enough to act.

That’s the
point of this pamphlet.

Because stopping
suicide starts with understanding the pain that suicidal people
feel and helping them understand that they’re not alone.

..What types of people are more likely
to attempt suicide?

At one time
or another, just about everyone thinks of suicide. Still, young
people who try to kill themselves usually fall into one of three
main groups.

Well adjusted, but living with
stressful situations. They may be having difficulty in coping
with a sudden crisis — their parents’ divorce, for example,
or the death of a friend. Failure in school, a romantic break-up,
or any other major loss could also serve as a trigger.

Depressed or anxious. People who feel stressed out or emotionally
down are at a much higher risk of suicide. And the risk is higher
still when emotional problems are coupled with substance abuse
or interpersonal loss.

Impulsive, aggressive, or self-destructive. Run- aways and drug
and alcohol abusers often fit in this high-risk group. Teen suicide
attempts are usually impulsive acts, and they’re linked to impulsive

Other factors
also play a role, and some have different impact than you might

Take money,
for example. Even though the problem is often portrayed in economic
terms, suicide isn’t usually a matter of dollars and cents. Statistics
show that rich kids kill themselves as often as poor or middle-income

On the other
hand, gender does seem to be an important factor.

Many young
people who are confused about their sexual identity — or who
have experienced sexual guilt or embarrassment — can see suicide
as a way to stop their shame or confusion.

And even though
girls are about twice as likely to attempt suicide, boys are
four times more likely to complete the act.

..Is there a link between drugs and alcohol
and suicide?

Yes, and not
just those involving young people. Drugs and alcohol play a major
role in suicides of all types.

Today, an estimated
half of all suicides are committed by problem drinkers, while
as many as two-thirds of all suicides involving young people
center around drug use.

Drugs and alcohol
become particularly lethal when combined with emotional depression
and interpersonal loss — a romantic break-up, for example,
or the death of a loved one.

In fact, studies
have shown that rates for suicide and attempted suicide are five
to 20 times higher among drug and alcohol abusers than the general

Drugs and alcohol
can be doubly dangerous since so few chemical abusers realize
that depression is often drug-related. They think their feelings
are a reflection of the way things really are, which can make
them feel even more depressed — and more desperate.

..Why do so many young people attempt suicide?

There are a
lot of reasons for the current explosion of suicide among the
young, but none is more important than the stress that kids go
through today.

Because the
fact is that growing up is more stressful today than it’s ever
been before.

A lot of factors
have been blamed — everything almost from overpopulation and
the breakdown of the family to increased pressure to excel and
easy access to firearms. Still, we all know that the cumulative
weight of life’s stresses makes growing up a difficult experience
for many young people, one that can seem overwhelming to some.

On top of everything
else, there’s the romantic image of suicide to contend with.

The fact that
suicide is only messy and sad — and hardly romantic — doesn’t
seem to occur to many young people. It just seems a quick, easy
way to make a point — or make someone sorry.

Then there’s
impulsive ness. Young people often act impulsively, and suicide
is usually an impulsive act. Impulsiveness becomes a particular
problem when someone is drunk or high.

A final reason
kids commit suicide can be seen in the rash of “copy-cat”
or cluster suicides that happen from time to time. Still, although
they’re highly publicized, cluster suicides only account for
about 5 percent of all suicides.

..Should all suicide threats be taken seriously?

Yes. Because
so many young people are impulsive, threats of suicide should
always be taken seriously. Suicide is one case where it’s better
to guess wrong about someone’s intentions than to stay silent.

It’s a myth
that people who talk about suicide don’t do it. They do. And
you won’t plant a seed in the person’s mind that they wouldn’t
have planted themselves.

Suicidal people
are stressed and depressed, not stupid. They’re capable of thinking
of suicide all by themselves.

So don’t worry
about putting ideas into their heads. If the ideas are there,
they need to be talked about and dealt with. If they’re not there,
they won’t take root simply because you mention them.

..What are the warning signs?

Symptoms that
may indicate whether or not a person is suicidal fall into three
main groups:

Behavioral changes. Warning signs
can include changes in eating or sleeping patterns, withdrawal
from friends and family, drinking or drug use, loss of interest
in favorite activities, or giving away valued possessions.

Personality changes. Common moods
involve anger, anxiety, or depression. Other changes to look
for include aggressiveness, hopelessness, hypersensitivity, boredom,
difficulty concentrating, or an unexplained decline in school

Health problems. Red flags here
could involve any serious or life-threatening illness, and even
such “minor” complaints as frequent headaches, weight
loss or gain, nausea, or fatigue.

At this point,
we need to point out that the symptoms above don’t necessarily
mean someone is considering suicide.

Still, they
are signs of a problem and need to be considered carefully.

Because the
fact is that two-thirds of those who commit suicide give some
warning first. That means it’s up to us — as friends, teachers,
parents, or relatives — to recognize the signal and respond,
person to person.

..Suicide Solutions

If a person
is really determined to die, he or she can usually figure out
a way, no matter what anyone does. As painful as that may be,
we need to accept it.

Still, many
young people who consider — or even attempt — suicide aren’t
that determined to kill themselves. And there are a lot of things
we can all do to make suicide more difficult and less likely.

Since about
half of all young people who kill themselves do it with guns
kept at home, one solution is for parents to keep guns hidden
and unloaded, with bullets stored separately. Researchers say
that suicidal impulses usually last only about 15 minutes. Making
it past that time may be enough to defuse the situation.

The same rule
applies to prescription drugs and alcohol. If you keep them in
your home, keep them out of easy reach.

If you’re a
young person and a friend mentions suicide, talk to a caring
adult — a parent, counselor, or someone else you can trust —
as soon as you can. This is no time to keep a secret.

If you prevent
your friend from committing suicide, he or she may be upset for
a while. But chances are they won’t be upset for long.

At least they’ll
have a lifetime to change their mind.

..Sidebar | How
To Help

There are a
lot of things anyone can — and should — do to help a suicidal
person. Besides just “being there” (which can make
a major difference) it can also help to:

Listen. Sometimes it helps just
knowing that someone else knows how we feel — and cares

Be honest. Ask if the person
is thinking of suicide. Don’t worry about planting an idea that
wasn’t already there. You won’t.

Ask if they’ve considered a method
and have plans to carry it out. The more specific the plans and
the more lethal the method, the more serious the threat.

Provide emotional strength. Be
positive and supportive. Fall apart later if you need to. But
in a crisis, focus on the other person’s needs — and give all
the compassion and caring you can muster.

..Sidebar | Pushing
Past Panic

Although depression
has long been linked with suicide, scientists now think that
panic is even more likely to trigger suicidal thinking and behavior.

In one recent
study, researchers at Columbia University found that people who
suffer from panic disorder are much more likely to commit suicide
than even the severely depressed.

Panic disorder,
which affects an estimated 1.5 percent of the U.S. population,
is marked by intense anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and a fear that
one is about to die or go crazy.

say the evidence linking panic to suicide is unmistakable. In
fact, they say that panic sufferers are more likely than those
with any other emotional disorder to report suicidal thoughts
or actions.

Still, there
is a bright side to the panic problem.

For one thing,
panic usually passes all by itself, in 90 minutes or so. For
another, victims of chronic anxiety or panic are more likely
to seek professional help than those reporting other emotional
difficulties. Also, panic attacks are increasingly treatable
through combinations of short-term drug treatment and psychotherapy.

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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