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Studies Shed New Light on Teen-Age Suicides

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Washington--Two researchers whose work on the media's influence on teen-age suicide gained nationwide attention last year have completed new studies that shed a slightly different light on the sensitive question of how to prevent young people from killing themselves.

In the more pessimistic of the two studies, David Shaffer, a psychiatrist affiliated with Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, found that suicide-prevention programs in New Jersey schools did little to change participants' attitudes about suicide--and may have had a negative impact on those most in need of help.

"Didactic approaches in which we're upsetting kids who are predisposed to suicide may not be the best approach," Dr. Shaffer told psychiatrists last week at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's annual meeting here.

But in the other new study, published in the Sept. 24 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the University of California sociologist David Phillips offers evidence that appears to contradict earlier reports linking television dramas on suicide to brief increases in the number of teen-agers killing themselves.

In his study, Mr. Phillips re-examined ground covered by Dr. Shaffer last year in research documenting a rise in the number of youthful suicides in New York City after three network telecasts on the subject. (See Education Week, Sept. 24, 1986.)

Mr. Phillips found, however, that in California and Pennsylvania there was a slight downturn in teen-age suicides following the same broadcasts.

Mr. Phillips had earlier docu2p4mented a relationship between news accounts of suicides and increases in the number of teen-age suicides.

Both researchers said last week that their research might provide clues--and raise questions--for educators seeking to curb the incidence of teen-age suicide in their communities.

Though the suicide rate for young people has leveled off in recent years, suicide is still the second-leading cause of death, after accidents, for the nation's 15-to-19-year-old population. An estimated 1,700 youths in that age bracket take their own lives each year.

'Upsetting' Suicidal Teens?

In the New Jersey study, Dr. Shaffer and his research associate, Ann F. Garland, examined the attitudes about suicide of teen-agers in 11 high schools--six conducting state-funded, suicide-prevention programs and five with no such efforts.

They found that a vast majority of the students in all of the schools already held what they considered to be "desirable" attitudes about suicide.

Most students interviewed said, for example, that suicide is "not a good solution" to problems, that suicide threats should always be taken seriously, and that a friend's intention to kill himself should not be kept secret.

The proportion of those holding such beliefs remained nearly the same before and one month after the school programs.

Moreover, among the handful of students who confessed to having had suicidal thoughts in the past, the programs were described as "upsetting" and "boring." These students also told the researchers that the instruction "may have made their own problems more difficult to handle."

Paradoxically, however, the same group of young people was also more likely than others to say that the programs, which lasted an average of three hours, were "not too long."

The final report on the study of school programs will be presented later this year to New Jersey state officials, who contracted for the evaluation.

One positive finding was that most of the teen-agers questioned said that, as a result of the school programs, they were more likely to use a hotline to help themselves or their friends deal with problems.

"It may be that we ought to rethink hotlines," Dr. Shaffer noted.

He also said that surveys--which are less expensive than formal programs of instruction--may be a better way of identifying the small number of students who are likely to try suicide. In his own survey of 2,000 teen-agers, Mr. Shaffer said, young people were surprisingly willing to admit to having had suicidal thoughts. Dr. Shaffer gained nationwide attention last year for his New York City study on the impact of television dramas about suicide.

Media Influences

He and a fellow researcher, Madelyn Gould, said suicides increased by as much as 50 percent immediately after those television movies.

But in his report, Mr. Phillips of California described his own effort to duplicate the New York experiment in his state and in Pennsylvania. He found a slight decrease in teen-age suicides in those states following the same three television broadcasts--even after he added in the data from the New York City study.

"Gould and Shaffer concluded their article by noting that 'fictional presentations of suicide may have a lethal effect,"' Mr. Phillips wrote. "This conclusion now seems premature."

Mr. Phillips also drew widespread media attention last year when he found an apparent link between nationally televised news reports of actual suicides and increases in unexpected or "excess" teen-age suicides.

In an interview last week, he said the two studies may differ simply because news accounts of suicide appear more frequently than a single broadcast of a fictionalized television drama.

The repeated news shows, appearing on more than one television station, may serve to "drive home" suicidal suggestions to young people, he said.

"I just think that it's repetition," he said. "If you see one ad on television, it doesn't do anything at all."

The potential danger in school suicide-prevention programs, he noted, is that they also repeat ideas and themes.

"In America, we have this wonderfully naive belief that all that's necessary to cure something is a program," he said. "It doesn't occur to us that we may have a negative effect or no effect at all."

Displeasing Views

Such views have stirred controversy among suicide-prevention organizations, such as the Youth Suicide National Center, a private Washington-based group that has long supported carefully planned, school-based, suicide-prevention programs.

Charlotte Ross, executive director of the organization, said the previous findings about the possible "imitative" effect of programs, films, and news accounts about suicide still may be "premature."

"Of course, we welcome David Phillips's article but we also are grateful for his pointing out that more research was needed," she said.

She said researchers for the California Department of Education, which is currently conducting an evaluation of suicide-prevention programs in that state's schools, are finding that the programs positively influenced the behavior of students. Yet, as in the new Shaffer study, young people's attitudes differed little after the programs.

"It's the old question of whether you say the glass is half-empty or half-full," she said.

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