Suicide's Grim Tolls

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Five years ago, the newspapers and airwaves were filled with reports of suicide's staggering toll on America's youth: an average of 13 lives a day in the 15-to-24-year-old age group.

The grim toll of suicide remains high, but the media attention has all but disappeared. Drug use and its associated violence, as well as the spread of AIDS, has stolen the spotlight from teen suicide. And, indeed, the latest federal statistics show that homicide has replaced suicide as the second-leading cause of death (behind accidents) in the same age group. Suicide, however, remains "about neck and neck'' with murder, according to researchers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which released a report on youth suicide in September, hopes to put the issue back on the front burner.

Completed two years ago but delayed by bureaucratic snarls, the Secretary's Report on Youth Suicide concludes that teachers and other school personnel need special training by professionals to recognize suicidal behavior and respond appropriately.

Among the report's major findings:

  • Young suicide victims are rarely mentally ill, though they often have a history of disordered behavior characterized by impulsiveness and aggression. This antisocial behavior is often aggravated by substance abuse.
  • Events that most often precipitate suicide include the breakup of a relationship, a recent arrest, and being the victim of an assault, beating, or rape.
  • Shooting is young victims' preferred means of suicide, followed by hanging, overdosing on drugs, and jumping from high places.
  • Five times as many young males commit suicide as young females.

Hundreds of school districts offer programs in suicide prevention, either as a specific course or activity, or as part of a larger health curriculum. Five states have mandated such programs: California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta published guidelines on how communities can respond to youth suicides and avoid the so-called "cluster'' syndrome--copycat suicides that often occur after one young person takes his or her life.

But despite the flood of material available to educators on the subject, the lack of data on "what works,'' many say, has left school officials confused about what they can or should do.

The HHS report stresses that prevention activities should be included as part of a broader health program, not as a one-shot effort focused only on suicide. This is especially important in schools, the report says.

Diane Ryerson, director of the Adolescent Suicide Awareness Program in Bergen County, N.J., agrees. "If you educate the entire school community about the realities of adolescent selfdestructive behavior,'' she says, "they will have a much better chance of getting each student the help he or she needs.''

Vol. 01, Issue 02, Page 1-24

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