Some 250,000 Teenagers Will Try Suicide This Year
In 1978, the most recent year for which figures are available, 6,500 people between the ages of 12 and 20 committed suicide in the United States.
About 250,000 teenagers are expected to attempt suicide this year. Of that number, according to past patterns, 8,000 will succeed.
Suicide is third only to auto accidents and homicide as the cause of death among this age group. (Some analysts say it is second.)
The suicide rate among teenagers has increased 250 percent in the past five years; it is the fastest-growing suicide rate of any age group. (The highest suicide rate is still found among the elderly.)
The problem has become so serious that some schools are starting their own suicide-prevention programs in addition to the centers that already exist for adults and youth (see next page). And two new major television documentaries have been produced on the problem.
One in-school program, begun two years ago with seed money from the federal government in Colorado's Cherry Creek school district, will be featured next Sunday (Dec. 13) in the second part of a two-part series on adolescent suicide being broadcast by ABC.
(The program, "In Loveland: Study of a Teenage Suicide," will be aired nationally at 1:00 p.m. EST. Times vary in some parts of the country.)
Thomas C. Barrett, a psychologist and director of the Cherry Creek district's Suicide Prevention Project, became interested in the problem following four suicides in the area during an 18-month period in 1978 and 1979.
"At the time, we tried to find a program similar to the one we have now and we came up blank," he said.
The project, he said, has established seminars for parents, administrators and teachers, along with teacher training and a 12-hour "crisis intervention package" for personnel within the schools.
"We've tried to give a lot of information to parents and teachers on spotting possible high-risk cases, but we also like to have people in the building who are prepared," he said.
The program also integrated suicide-prevention curricula into existing courses required of junior- and senior-high school students in the district.
By the end of this year, Mr. Barrett will have completed a written program that other districts can purchase at cost.
"Our whole project has been under a strict experimental design to see how good this stuff is," Mr. Barrett said.
Herb Danska, producer and director of ABC's television program, which documents the story of one 15-year-old who committed suicide in Loveland and the subsequent effect on his family, said Mr. Barrett's is the first school-based comprehensive identification, intervention, and prevention program he could discover in the country.
"We're where we were with birth control 10 years ago," he said, in terms of resistance to introducing informational programs in the schools. Mr. Danska believes officials will encounter a similar resistance to offering suicide-prevention programs.
"You can almost predict that when you raise an issue like this in a certain community," he said, "people will bring up the myth that 'talking about it will give kids ideas.'
"When Tom first raised the idea in Loveland, parents and educators were quite appalled by the idea. However, he works 60 miles south of Loveland. There, they officially adopted the program," he added.
Another documentary on the subject, distributed by Metromedia Productions, is being syndicated this fall.
"Teenage Suicide: Don't Try It!" focuses on four teenagers who attempted suicide and the parents of a 16-year-old boy who succeeded. It explores some of the most common causes of suicide among teenagers, such as poor relations with parents, depression, and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
Other factors, according to Mr. Danska, include social rejection and the unrealistic expectations and physical abuse of parents.
According to Calvin J. Frederick, chief of Disaster Assistance and Emergency Mental Health at the National Institute of Mental Health, and Michael Peck of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, the film illustrates typical problems that prompt teenagers to consider suicide.
"Suicidal people are typically not--I emphatically repeat not--'crazy,"' Mr. Frederick said. "They are depressed, they are disturbed, but they are not suicidal maniacs."
In a 1973 study, Mr. Frederick found that 93 percent of the suicidal teenagers he examined reported a lack of communication between themselves and their parents.
A "fairly typical suicidal male," Mr. Frederick said, has either lost his father before age 16 or has one with whom his relations are strained.
"This relationship leads to depression, smoking, drinking, and drugs, which result in problems like failing grades and poor behavior--and ultimately perhaps to a suicide attempt," he said.
Over the last 25 years, he noted, the suicide rate for males between ages 10 and 24 has tripled. Over the same period, it has doubled for females in that age group.
A "fairly typical suicidal female" has a domineering or narcissistic mother and a weak father. "Such a girl may turn to a boyfriend for support," Mr. Frederick said. "If he is not emotionally prepared to handle the problems she is offering, she may turn to suicide."
According to Mr. Frederick, student suicides more often result from the absence of "solid parental relationships" than from failure in schoolwork.
Alcohol has long been closely associated with suicide, but a strong correlation between drugs and suicide (with the exception of heroin) has not been established, Mr. Fred-erick said. "I would not say that marijuana is a precipitant of suicide itself," he said.
"The whole problem of drug-dependency centers on why people use these things in the first place," he added. "What in their lives leads them to it?"
Most important, he feels, is "the well-documented breakdown of the nuclear family."
Mr. Peck warned against the idea that the schools can pick up the roles that parents are abandoning. "Too much is expected of the educational system already. I don't think they are going to be the most important replacement to the role of parents."
Mr. Peck and Mr. Frederick agreed that school programs are valuable, however.
They agreed that because teachers often spend more time with students than their own parents do, they are in a good position to spot suicidal students before an attempt occurs.
Normal Signs May Not Appear
Mr. Frederick said teachers should not always look for the normal signs of depression, like listlessness, sadness, and loss of appetite, in suicidal teenagers, because they may not appear. For example, teenagers may remain very active in sports but still be physically depressed.
"Look for things like falling grades, abnormally bad behavior, and an abrupt change in attitude," he said.
"Teachers should try to find an opportunity to say, subtlely, 'Say, you don't seem like yourself these days. Want to talk about it?"'
At some point the teacher should ask if the student is or has pondered suicide. "Mentioning it won't plant the idea," Mr. Peck said, "but it can get them to talk about it."
He warned against dismissing any talk of an attempt as a "bid for attention" or a "suicidal gesture."
"These are very dangerous thoughts," he said. According to Mr. Peck, few if any people who attempt suicide really want to die.
This point is demonstrated in the most dramatic moment in "Teenage Suicide: Don't Try It!" A boy who had attempted suicide only hours before the filmed interview, says,
"You know why I'm smiling? 'Cause I'm alive. I'm glad to be alive, very glad. It's a good feeling.... I ran from the cops, I ran from the ambulance, I ditched in the bushes and sat there and bled to death, but they found me.... The funny thing is when they found me I felt pretty damn good about it."
"Teenage Suicide: Don't Try It!" will be aired on WNEW-tv, New York, Dec. 10 at 8:00 p.m.; KRIV-tv, Houston, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.; and KTTV-tv, Los Angeles, Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. Specific dates and times for viewing in geographical areas should be included in local television listings.
For more information on Mr. Barrett's suicide-prevention project, contact him at Cherry Creek School District #5, 3301 South Monaco Blvd., Denver, Colo. 80222.