It happens every day, and with alarming frequency. Adolescent suicide is a serious problem in every country. In the United States, teen suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. A U.S. survey found that almost one in five high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide, and more than one in six had already made plans to commit suicide. Although it is a most serious problem it can, to a large extent, be prevented with appropriate interventions.
Several environmental and social situations can have an impact on adolescents' health. Among those situations are the following: extreme poverty; an unfavorable family situation; factors related to employment possibilities and those that result from a clash between the new life values acquired by the youth and traditional family values.
When adolescents do not adapt to new and challenging situations, they may develop or manifest mental and psychological disturbances that can lead to serious psychiatric problems, such as depression, that may end up in suicide. In the United States, male adolescents commit suicide at a rate five times greater than female adolescents.
Suicide is a tragic but potentially preventable public health problem. In the case of adolescents, they may be prone to "suicide contagion," where the exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior within one family, one's peer group or through media reports of suicide can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behavior. It is estimated that there may be between eight and 25 attempted suicides for every suicide death.
Although there are no tests to identify those that are going to commit suicide, there are risks factors that should be taken into consideration by parents, friends and teachers. Among those risk factors are the following: a previous history of depression, a family history of psychiatric disorders (particularly depression or suicidal behavior), family disruption, a history of physical or sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, poor self-esteem, household financial problems, victimization from bullying, social rejection, sexual abuse and drug abuse, among other problems.
There are some signals that may alert that adolescents may be attempting to commit suicide. These clear danger signals include sudden changes in behavior, withdrawal from friends, suicide threats, increased irritability and self-destructive behavior, school difficulties or failure, and giving away treasured possessions. Suicidal comments by adolescents should never be considered unimportant.
Parents and educators should be always aware of the psychological needs of adolescents, since their peculiar behavior may indicate that they are going through a difficult period in their lives. They should create conditions (in the family, in the school and in the community) that will adequately respond to the emotional needs of young people.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention stresses that suicide threats should be taken seriously, particularly since 75% of all suicides give some warning of their intentions to friends and family members.
Suicide-prevention programs should be carefully planned, tested and monitored to make sure they are safe, effective, and worth the effort and the cost of implementing them. Parents and teachers should be aware of danger signals in adolescents, and take appropriate measures when they appear. Schools should increase the number of trained counselors, and teachers should be trained in spotting emotional distress among their students.
The World Health Organization has developed four basic steps as suicide prevention guidelines: limiting accessibility to the means of suicide such as pesticides, toxic drugs and guns; treating mental illness; enhancing social support networks and changing social norms.
They should be complemented by health promotion campaigns focused on mental health and suicide prevention. Through combined efforts it is possible to lower the loss of adolescents’ lives.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and the author of "Adolescents' Health in the Americas."