Adolescent Suicide

Scope of the Problem

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens and young adults in the US and Canada. The suicide rate among young teens and young adults has increased by more than 300% in the last 3 decades. The rate in the US is now approximately 13 per 100,000 15-24 year olds. Since 1970, most of the increase in youth suicide has been due to firearm associated suicide. Firearms are the most common method of suicide for both male and female youth. The suicide rate for males is two to three fold greater than for females. 

Suicide has also increased among 10-14 year olds. During the decade of the 1980’s, suicide in this age group increased by 75%. 

Suicide attempts by adolescents are very frequent. It is estimated that fewer than 1 in 50 attempts are successful. The 1995 Youth Risk Behavior Survey in the US found that among high school students, 9% had attempted suicide in the preceding 12 months.1 Only 2% of those who had actually attempted suicide came to medical attention. 

The following link to the Surgeon General's 1999, Call to Action to Prevent Suicide provides additional information regarding suicide prevention and the scope of the problem.

Prevention of youth suicide 

In 1980, the US Public Health Service made suicide prevention one of the key goals to improve health by 1990. Unfortunately, the target of a reduction of suicide to 11 per 100,000 was not achieved; instead suicide rates increased between 1980 and 1990 in this age group. 

The number of proven effective interventions for youth suicide is extremely limited. While many interventions have been implemented, few have been evaluated, mostly with non-rigorous designs. The evaluation of suicide prevention programs is very difficult because it is a relatively rare event, and because most suicide attempts do not get reported. Thus, statistically significant reductions in suicide rates are difficult to show and require very large samples. For example, to reduce the suicide rate among young males by 20%would require an intervention group of nearly 3 million and a control group of similar size.2 

As a result, most of the studies which have been conducted have examined changes in knowledge and attitudes among the targeted youth. These results are very limited because the injury prevention literature is replete with studies which show that there is little correlation between attitude and knowledge and change in behavior. No studies use random assignment of subjects to intervention and control groups. 

Proposed interventions for the prevention of youth suicide have many different mechanisms of action, ranging from primary prevention of mental health problems to early detection (e.g., school-based screening programs) to restriction of lethal means of suicide. One of the best frameworks for considering prevention programs is that developed by Eddy, Wolpert and Rosenberg.3 Possible interventions are grouped into six categories as outlined by these authors: 

  • Affective education to help youth cope 
    • Peer counseling 

    Early identification of high risk youth 

    • General community education programs
    • Population-based screening 

    School-based programs 

    • School-based educational programs 

    Crisis centers and hotlines 

    • Crisis "hot lines", suicide prevention centers
    • Call boxes on bridges

    Training and availability of health care professionals 

    • Physician education programs
    • Mental health services 

    Restricting access to lethal means 

    • Safe storage of guns
    • Fences on bridges
    • Removing carbon monoxide from house gas
    • Restricting drugs/poisons
    • Other restrictions on guns

Unfortunately, we found data on only four of the six categories. In this review we examine 4 different potential prevention strategies for adolescent suicide: 
  Prevention Interventions