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1 in 14 Youths Tried Suicide in One-Year Period, Study Finds

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Nearly one in 14 high school students said they had attempted suicide within a recent 12-month period, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported this month.

In what the agency calls the most comprehensive national study on teenage suicide to date, students responded to a questionnaire asking if they had attempted, planned, or thought about taking their lives.

Twenty-nine percent said they had thought about it and 19 percent had "made a specific plan to attempt suicide,'' according to the report. Seven percent of the adolescents said they actually attempted suicide.

Moreover, females were much more likely than males to have thought seriously about, made plans for, or actually attempted suicide.

Over all, 2 percent of the respondents made a suicide attempt that required medical attention, and twice as many females as males reported such an attempt.

The report is based on the center's ongoing Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which questioned a nationally representative sample of 12,000 9th to 12th graders at schools in 23 states and 10 metropolitan areas about a range of health issues.

"We are not alarmed, but I would say we are concerned about this finding,'' said Laura Kann, a health specialist at the C.D.C.

The figures are not greatly different from the first suicide data to be released from the behavior survey last fall. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)

Even so, some suicide-prevention experts believe that the numbers are probably low because surveys often miss those groups that traditionally are difficult to collect data on, including high school dropouts, homeless teenagers, and drug users.

Indicators of Risk

"Teen suicide is grossly underreported,'' said Dr. Barry Garfinkel, a psychiatrist who runs a suicide-prevention program at the University of Minnesota. "It's a secret, hidden thing that young people are embarrassed about.''

Learning how to identify students who are at high risk for suicide is the first step to eradicating the problem, experts say.

Students who appear despondent, have been abused, have a history of depression, or come from a troubled family should be considered "high risk,'' according to Kenneth Powell of the center's Youth Suicide Prevention Program.

Mr. Powell warned that if a student commits suicide, teachers should not "glorify the suicide or let students identify with a student who has committed suicide.''

Rather than show a film that can glamourize the victim, he said, teachers and parents should talk directly with students.

Some parents and teachers have objected to talking openly about suicide with adolescents out of fear that it would promote the idea rather than discourage it.

"It's like sex education,'' Mr. Powell said. "People think if they talk about it, it might put an idea in [the youth's] head.''

Most experts agree, however, that psychological counseling is one of the most effective suicide-prevention techniques.

Next month, the C.D.C. will release a new guide to preventing youth suicide that includes educational strategies.

The guide urges schools to begin training programs for staff members to help them identify students at risk and refer them to appropriate treatment services.

Adding counselors, setting up a peer-support program, restricting access to weapons and drugs, and informing students about crisis centers and telephone hotlines are other suicide-prevention strategies recommended in the guide.

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