September 4, 2008

Youth Suicide Rate No Fluke, CMU Researcher Says

By Tim Puko

A higher-than-expected rate of youth suicides might be part of an emerging, nationwide health crisis, according to research co- authored by a Carnegie Mellon University professor released today.

The rate of youth suicides declined for more than a decade before spiking in 2004, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the rate dropped slightly from 2004 to 2005, the most recent years for which statistics are available, it was much higher than trends suggest it should have been, according to the research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"For 15 years you see something going down, and then all of a sudden you see a jump, and that jump stays up, that jump is a concern," said Joel B. Greenhouse, the Carnegie Mellon statistician who co-authored the study.

"Here we're talking about lives. Last year the federal government's response to the jump was, 'Let's be cautious ... this could be just a statistical fluke.' Now we have two years of data, and it's hard to argue that this is a statistical fluke."

There were about nine suicides for every 200,000 American youths in 2005, according to the study. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents and the second among college-age youths, according to Mental Health America, formerly known as the National Mental Health Association.

The research adds to a growing list of reports that worry about an international rise in youth suicides. Several researches have noted a spike happened just after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put messages on antidepressant packaging warning the drugs might increase the risk of suicide for children and young adults.

That was a motivation for the study, said Greenhouse and Jeffrey A. Bridge, the study's principal investigator and an epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The next step should be for more studies to determine the cause of the rise, they said.

The two did a regression analysis of the suicide rates for U.S. children ages 10 to 19 from 1996 to 2005. This group's suicide rate jumped 18 percent between 2003 and 2004, the largest single-year change in 15 years, according to federal data analyzed in the study.

The rate decreased by about 5 percent for 2005. However, if the 2004 spike was an anomaly, the 2005 decrease should have been more dramatic, about four times larger, according to the Bridge and Greenhouse study.

Bridge and Greenhouse give a few possible reasons for the increase in youth suicides, including the influence of Internet social networks and suicides among older teens who are U.S. soldiers. Other researchers have pointed directly at the so-called "Black Box" warning labels on antidepressants, noting an international correlation between the drug warnings and the spike in suicides.

Several researchers and advocates agreed that more awareness and education is crucial. Declines in suicide rates are rare, and people need to know that antidepressants are one of the few effective measures for suicide prevention, said Dr. David Schaffer, an adolescent psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

CONTACT Pittsburgh, which offers emotional support and crisis intervention services, is starting a suicide training prevention program this fall to teach people how to support those at risk. Since 2006, the group has designated a staff member to talk at local high schools and colleges about suicide and prevention, Executive Director Christy Stuber said.

Suicide statistics for 2006 are expected to be available by late fall, Schaffer said.

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