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Teenage Suicide: Why are kids killing themselves?

Thomas Secrest's picture
Teenage suicide: Image by Thomas Secrest

Life is such a strange phenomenon. Biologists can describe its evolution all the way back to that one point in time where it first sprang into existence, more or less 3.5 billion years ago. With nothing to suggest otherwise, it was a singular event in a universe of indescribable dimensions and age, which while it can be described, cannot really be comprehended.

Collectively, life can be depicted a durable, robust, resilient and hardy. Individually, life is as fragile as a whisper and as fleeting as a dream.

What is it about life that makes some cling to it passionately until the last beat of the heart, while others can let it go as if it were not theirs to possess.

I will start by telling you that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers 15 to 19 years old. However, before I go any further, what do you think are the first and second leading causes of death? If you are like me you are thinking about various diseases that you know to affect teenagers. Maybe you’re thinking about cancer, or some type of genetic disease like diabetes or muscular dystrophy. The average person thinks tends to focus on diseases that cause death, but in this case, I and perhaps you, were both wrong. The leading cause of death in teenagers is accidents and it’s not a small lead. Accidents take more teenage lives than the 2nd through 7th leading causes combined.

So now you know the 1st and 3rd leading causes of teenage death. The 2nd cause, which takes just a few more lives than suicides, is homicide!

If the three leading causes were diseases, we could, at the very least, blame biology, although, in reality, that’s not particularly satisfying. However, when the leading causes are accidents, homicides and suicides we think of it as a senseless waste of something we don’t yet fully understand.

In the March 2013, issue of JAMA Psychiatry, the authors of Prevalence, Correlates, and Treatment of Lifetime Suicidal Behavior Among Adolescents tried to better understand the 3rd leading cause of teenage death. The results that I will now summarize don’t really aid in understanding teenage suicide as much as they help us measure it. For humans, sometimes after we measure things we become motivated to understand them, and then we become motivated to deal with them.

“Investigators from Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, found that among a national sample of adolescents aged 13 to 18 years, the estimated lifetime prevalence of suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts was 12.1%, 4.0%, and 4.1%, respectively.”

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In everyday speak this means that of their sample of 6483 teenagers from 13 to 18, 12.1% had thoughts about killing themselves, 4% had actually gone so far as to make some type of plan and 4.1% actually tried to commit suicide.

Look around you; do you see any teenagers, do you know any teenagers, if so, there is a 1 in 10 chance that they have thought about killing themselves.
If you look back at the numbers you will also see that of those who think about killing themselves, one-third go on make a plan. Of those who make a plan, almost two-thirds put their plans into action.

The results also show that girls are about twice as likely to contemplate suicide as boys and just over twice as likely to attempt unplanned suicides.

The authors also noted the following: “Among suicidal adolescents, the most prevalent lifetime disorder was major depressive disorder/dysthymia, followed by specific phobia, oppositional defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, substance abuse, and conduct disorder.”

It is tempting to look at these problems and think that teenage suicide is a psychiatric problem. However, I would warn against jumping to quickly to this conclusion. The study was not designed to determine which came first the chicken or the egg. Additionally, there was a disconnect regarding the causes of suicide ideation and suicide attempts.

There was also a suicide study published in the June 06, 2013 issue of Psychological Medicine, which while somewhat difficult to compare directly with the previous study, did have one very interesting finding. They found that suicidal risk in later life was inversely proportional to cardiovascular fitness at age 18 years, although, this was not the interesting part. The interesting part was “the fact that the strength of the relationship was hardly attenuated by serious depression tells us that the link cannot be explained by depression alone," said study investigator Margda Waern, MD, PhD, from Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Let me state that differently. In a sample of 1,136,527 male subjects (which makes this an incredibly powerful study) serious depression later in life did not seriously reduce the connection between cardiovascular fitness at age 18 and a reduced risk of suicide later in life. This puts the idea that depression is a leading cause of suicide, at jeopardy.

As I said earlier, the numbers aren’t going to resolve anything and trying to invent a playbook for teenage suicide is a mistake. There will never be a single playbook.

However, I think we can all agree on a simple principle – happy people don’t kill themselves. Where we go from here, I leave up to you.