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Treating the Growing Problem of Teen Suicide

Most exhibit warning signs before taking their lives

WEDNESDAY, May 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Ross Szabo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 16. Medication and psychotherapy brought his condition under control for awhile. However, as a high school senior, he became obsessed with thoughts of taking his own life.

"I thought about death or suicide 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Szabo says. "No matter what I was doing, whether I was at home, playing basketball or in science class."

He confided his feelings to his parents, who had him hospitalized.

Now 24, Szabo is a youth spokesperson for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, a non-profit group trying to educate parents and young people about the growing problem of depression and suicide among teen-agers and young adults.

Every near, nearly 5,000 American teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 commit suicide. It is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, and the sixth-leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds, according to statistics compiled by the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign (NMHAC).

Suicide accounts for more deaths in those age groups than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, combined, NMHAC says.

Even worse, teen suicide is on the rise. The suicide rate for white males aged 15 to 24 has tripled since 1950; for white females 15 to 24, it has more than doubled. More than twice as many youths aged 10 to 14 committed suicide in 1997 than in 1980. And from 1980 to 1996, the suicide rate for black males aged 15 to 19 increased more than 100 percent.

"This is a public health crisis," says Dr. Harold Koplewicz, a professor of child and adolescent psychology and director of the New York University Child Study Center. "Adolescent depression is not only very serious and potentially lethal, but remarkably common."

However, there is hope.

Four of five teens who attempt suicide exhibit warning signs, one study shows. If parents, educators and peers know what to look for, they can offer help.

"All parents have to be armed with the knowledge of what the warning signs are," Koplewicz says.

Signs of depression include:

  • A change in behavior, such as sleeping or eating habits. Depressed teen-agers may suffer from insomnia, or they might come home from school and go straight to bed.
  • Lack of concentration, which may show up in falling grades at school.
  • An overwhelming sense of sadness and "disconnectedness." Teens who are depressed have an inability to enjoy things that gave them pleasure in the past. They may lose interest in friends or in activities they used to enjoy.

If parents notice these signs, they should talk to their child and let the child know they are there to help. Parents should also seek help from a pediatrician, psychologist or a school counselor, even if their child resists.

"If you see your child is suffering and he is socially isolated, you must get help," Koplewicz says. "If your child is bleeding, you wouldn't discuss whether he wants help. You?d go to the emergency room. Depression is a real illness, and left untreated, it can be lethal."

The reasons for taking action are inescapable. In 1999, nearly 20 percent of American high school students reported having seriously considered or attempted suicide during the previous 12 months.

Approximately 80 percent of depressed teen-agers don't get the necessary psychiatric treatment.

Teens diagnosed with depression are five times more likely than adults to attempt suicide.

After leaving the hospital, Szabo graduated from high school and enrolled in American University in Washington, D.C. Ten months later, he relapsed and had to take a leave of absence.

Szabo later returned to American University, and he graduated earlier this month.

His struggle with mental illness led Szabo to want to help others. During the past six years, he's spoken to more than 11,000 high school and college students across the country. One of his goals: Reduce the stigma of mental illness.

"It helps people realize they are not alone, that it's OK to talk about their problems and it's OK to get help for their problems," Szabo says.

What To Do

For more information about depression or to get help, visit NoStigma.org, or call the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign at 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-877-495-0009. Press 1 if you need a counselor right away.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has these tips on preventing teen suicide.

SOURCES: Ross Szabo, youth spokesman, National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, Washington, D.C.; Harold Koplewicz, M.D., director, New York University Child Study Center, New York City
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