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David Baxter PhD

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Teen Suicides Dip 25 Percent
June 11, 2004
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The rate at which teenagers commit suicide took a sharp dip during the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday, dropping by 25 percent between 1992 and 2001.

But the same nationwide survey of death certificates that returned the good news of fewer suicides contained a troubling coda: The methods by which teens commit suicide are changing.

In the early 1990s, teens' suicides overwhelmingly involved guns. By 2001, a significant proportion were due to suffocation or hanging; among 10- to 14-year-olds, death by suffocation was twice as common as gun deaths.

Researchers at the CDC were surprised by the shift. They said that finding an explanation will be an urgent priority, because suicide-prevention programs have a better chance of succeeding when they are precisely tailored to what teens are attempting.

"We know from earlier research a little bit about the factors that play a role in why an individual picks a particular method," said Dr. Alex Crosby, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention. "What we don't know from this particular study is what changed --- acceptability of a method, or availability." Still 'major health problem'

Approximately 4,200 teens and young adults die by suicide each year in the United States, and an additional 124,000 attempt suicide in a manner serious enough to bring them to an emergency room but survive. Despite the drop noted Thursday --- from 6.2 to 4.6 deaths per 100,000 members of that age group --- suicide remains the third-leading cause of death among American youth.

"The trend is certainly going in the right direction, but suicide is still a major public health problem," said Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine and chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital. "Most of these deaths should be preventable."

Kaslow and Crosby could not say whether methods of restricting access to guns, such as trigger locks, may have played a role in the shift in suicide methods.

No data has been gathered to prove how widely those measures have been employed, Kaslow said. Schools have impact

Gun violence prevention classes and zero-tolerance policies implemented by schools after the 1999 Columbine High School killings in Colorado may have played a role, Kaslow suggested.

"Unfortunately, with budget cuts schools are having to cut out this kind of programming," she said. "We got better for a while, but I am concerned with the cuts things are going to be more difficult again."

Schools do play a role in suicides, the CDC said Thursday.

Of the 126 violent deaths that took place at elementary and high schools between 1994 and 1999, including the Columbine shootings, 28 --- more than one-fifth --- were suicides.

Eight of those suicides killed or injured at least one other person at the school before killing themselves.

High school students who attempt suicide are four times more likely than other students to have been in fights in the past year, the CDC said in a third survey. The survey did not ask whether the students were victims or aggressors, or whether bullying played a role.

Young adult suicides were not broken down by gender or ethnic group. However, for the first time Thursday, the CDC analyzed the rate of suicide among Hispanics living in the United States, finding an overall rate of 5.95 per 100,000 for all age groups between 1997 and 2001.
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