FRIDAY, Sept. 16, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24 years, a new study shows few suicidal teens are getting the mental health treatment they need.
The researchers found only 13 percent of teenagers with suicidal thoughts visited a mental health professional through their health care network, and only 16 percent received treatment during the year, even though they were eligible for mental health visits without a referral and with relatively low co-payments.
Even when researchers combined various types of mental health services, such as antidepressants and care received outside their health network, only 26 percent of teens contemplating suicide received help in the previous year.
"Teen suicide is a very real issue today in the United States. Until now, we've known very little about how much or how little suicidal teens use health care services. We found it particularly striking to observe such low rates of health care service use among most teens in our study," the study's lead author, Carolyn A. McCarty, of Seattle Children's Research Institute and research associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in a Seattle Children's Hospital news release.
In the study, researchers analyzed the use of health care services among 198 teens ranging in age from 13 to 18 years. Half of the teenagers had had suicidal thoughts; the other half did not.
Although identifying teens with suicidal thoughts is critical, the researchers revealed mental health services were underused among all of the teens studied. Although 86 percent of the teens with suicidal thoughts had seen a health care provider, only 13 percent had seen a mental health specialist. Moreover, just 7 percent received antidepressants, the study found.
Meanwhile, only 10 percent of those without suicidal thoughts had received any mental health visits within the Group Health Cooperative system in the prior year.
Although the myth that suicidal thoughts are a normal part of growing up still persists, the findings suggest suicidal tendencies are often accompanied by trouble in school or with relationships, making mental health care even more important.
"We know that asking teens about [suicidal thoughts] does not worsen their problems," said McCarty. "It's absolutely crucial for a teen who is having thoughts of self-harm or significant depression to be able to tell a helpful, trustworthy adult."
The researchers added that primary care physicians should be screening teenagers for depression and suicidal thoughts. "Effective screening tools are available, as are effective treatments for depression," McCarty noted.
The study was published in the September issue of Academic Pediatrics.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry provides more information on teen suicide.