Teen suicide shakes the very foundation of a community and leaves parents and family members numb as everyone asks an unanswerable question, "Why?" "Why” would a teen chose death over life? What makes their life so unbearable that they would rather die than face one more day? "Why" is suicide the third leading cause of death in the US for youths between ages 10 and 24? "Why" aren't we doing more to help?"
The research on suicide is alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 4600 youths take their lives each year. The three methods most often used by young people are: firearm (45%), suffocation (40%), and poisoning (8%). Too many teens have thought about, planned and attempted suicide. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, states that 10% of all teens think about suicide at one point or another. More specifically, the Youth Risk Behavior Study, which assessed high school students in the US, found that females are particularly vulnerable and more likely to report having considered (17.4%/10.4%), planned (13.2%/8.6%), and attempted suicide (8.1%/4.6%).
What is most concerning are the results from a new study that shows the majority of youths who end their lives didn't receive any treatment. According to an article in The Lancet Psychiatry journal about 60% of people who contemplate or attempt suicide do not receive treatment; and there is little evidence in the therapeutic effectiveness of those who do. So, how do we really help youths who feel as though they've reached the end of the road?
A good starting place is to identify the key psychological factors that contribute to and/or protect against suicidal behavior. The authors of the study acknowledged that we have an understanding of the risk factors that contribute to suicidal behavior, but are lacking understanding the causes. The "causes," of course, isn't that what leads us to the first "Why?” Maybe if we start researching the root of the problem, instead of putting our efforts on the aftermath, we can offer help to these troubled youth.
The study also points to the need to explore the key factors of suicidal behavior, including: personality differences, cognitive factors, and negative life events i.e., serious physical illness, as well as effective psychological treatments. Additionally, we need to explore the protective factors in the lives of youths who are vulnerable to suicidal ideation. So, that leads to another question... "Why" do two people with similar life events cope so differently?
Is it one's individuality or how resilient one is to life stressors or something unbeknownst to us all? In regards to resilience, the concept is intriguing…How can some individuals cope and bounce back after a traumatic event while others become immobilized or negatively act out? What contributes to one's ability to handle difficult situations with either positive coping skills or negative ones? Is it merely an offset of having more positive factors (familial support, strong faith-base, good friendships, etc.,) in one's life? How much influence does resiliency have in the final decision? If we can get an answer to these questions, then maybe we can make headway in helping these at-risk youths.
Furthermore, we need to explore ways to make therapy more effective. It's troubling that with all of the data we have accumulated on suicide, as this study points out, our therapeutic efforts are still lacking in effectiveness. It appears that the one therapeutic approach that does provide positive results is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Studies have shown that CBT can decrease the risk of suicide reattempt. While a step in the right direction, how do we reach those before an attempt is even made?
So where does this leave us? Hopefully we are motivated to find the answers to all of the "Why's" behind suicide. We need to change directions and focus on more proactive rather than reactive measures. Additionally, maybe we can find creative and innovative psychological treatments as a means to helping those who are at risk for suicidal behavior. There are too many questions, and not enough answers. Meanwhile the statistic remains the same... Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youths between the ages of 10 and 24. Now, what can we do to help?
American Psychiatric Association, Teen Suicide Fact Sheet. 2. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Teen Suicide Fact Sheet, Updated May 2008.
Rory C O’Connor, Matthew K Nock. The psychology of suicidal behaviour. Lancet Psychiatry, May 2014 DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70222-6