By Dr. Mercola
If you have watched or read any news lately, it is likely you have heard some of the tragic stories about young people committing suicide.
Children killing themselves as a result of being bullied has been a particular focus in the media recently, sparking numerous debates and new anti-bullying legislation in a number of states.
It is truly disheartening that so many of our youth feel desperate enough to take their own lives, obviously feeling hopeless about ever feeling better. It makes it doubly tragic that so many parents must endure the mental anguish of losing a child—especially losing a child to suicide.
A rather new question that further adds to the tragic nature of many of these cases is: What role do antidepressants play in shaping this trend?
As more and more teens are prescribed antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs and drugs for ADD/ADHD, suicide rates have gone up rather than decreased. I'll explore this particular facet of this troubling trend in a moment.
Shocking Teen Suicide Statistics
As of 2007, suicide ranked as the third leading cause of death among young people (ages 15 to 24), exceeded only by accidents and homicides. Sadly, suicides account for 1.4 percent of all deaths in the U.S. each year, but comprise 12.2 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year-olds.
In other words, the proportion of deaths resulting from suicide amongst teenagers is nine times the proportion for adults!
Every Two Hours, Another Youth Commits Suicide
Here are some other alarming statistics, obtained from the American Association of Suicidology:
- There are approximately 11.3 youth suicides each and every day in the U.S. Every two hours and seven minutes, a person under the age of 25 completes suicide.
- In the past 60 years, the suicide rate has quadrupled for 15-24 year-old males and doubled for females.
- Males in this age group are 4-5 times more likely than females to complete suicide. However, females are more likely to attempt suicide. This is largely a result of males tending to choose more lethal methods (firearms) as a means of ending their lives, whereas girls more often choose less lethal methods (pills).
- Between 1981 and 2007, suicide rates for children ages 10-14 increased by 50 percent.
- In the U.S. in 2007, 119 children ages 10-14 completed suicide. In this age group, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death.
- Guns are the most commonly used suicide method among youth, accounting for 45.9 percent of all completed suicides. Guns in the home have proved deadly to children.
- It is estimated there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses each year. According to the American College Health Association, 9.5 percent of college students have seriously contemplated suicide, and 1.5 percent have made an attempt.
Interpersonal Conflicts Top the List of Reasons Youth Commit Suicide
Interpersonal conflicts are often the core problem of your adolescent's reasons for suicide. One of the most serious conflicts an adolescent can encounter is the issue of gender identity. The social repercussions of this issue can be profoundly distressing to a teen, and unfortunately the bullying and "gay bashing" that sometimes occurs can result in a suicide attempt.
LGBT teens (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
Over 30 percent of LGBT youth report at least one suicide attempt within the last year. More than 50 percent of transgender youth attempt suicide at least once before their 20th birthday.
Forth Worth City Councilman Joel Burns captured the heart of the public recently by telling his own story about the bullying he faced as a gay teen at a public council meeting October 13, 2010. His powerful message to the nation's youth is a poignant example of the devastating effects bullying can have on a child.
Regardless of your feelings and beliefs about the gender identity issue, I think we can all agree this particular group deserves more support and compassion from society. As researchers have attempted to get a handle on youth suicide, they have identified several important trends:
- Most adolescent suicides occur after school in the teen's home.
- If you have a child in high school, it is likely three students in his classroom have made suicide attempts in the past year.
- Threatening to kill oneself precedes four out of five suicides.
- Not all suicidal children admit their intent. Therefore, any deliberate self-harming behaviors should be seriously evaluated.
- Most teen suicide attempts are precipitated by interpersonal conflicts. The suicide behavior often represents a child's desperate attempt to change the behavior and attitudes of others.
- If your child makes more than one nonfatal attempt, she is using this as a means of coping with ongoing stress. Children who do this need immediate help learning better ways of coping.
- What cultural factors could be responsible for the fragile emotional health of our youth?
Teen Suicide is a Blend of Biological, Emotional, Spiritual and Social Factors
I believe today's rates of suicide in our young people stems from several key areas, including:
- Too much electronic media. Television and Internet ads are a powerful tool the food industry uses to manipulate and deceive kids into purchasing more health-harming and mood-altering processed food and junk food. Another major problem is the EMF radiation bombarding children day in and day out. For example, cell phones are exposing their brains to dangerous levels of radiation, the damaging effects of which we are only beginning to see.
- Vast increases in off-label psychiatric drug use for kids. Psychotropic drugs that have not been approved for children are nevertheless being prescribed for depression, anxiety, insomnia, distractibility, and even shyness or social awkwardness. Antidepressants top this list (which I will discuss in detail later).
- Decreased parental involvement. Many kids are growing up in single-parent households, or those where both parents are working, so a large number of children are spending more time alone (or with peers) than with parents. Many are not receiving enough adult guidance and modeling, so they don't have the opportunity to learn the coping skills necessary to effectively deal with stress.
- Increased toxins in your environment and food supply. Estimates show most Americans have somewhere between 400 and 800 chemicals stored in their bodies. Exposure to environmental toxins from your air, water and food supply has been linked to depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and less ability to cope with stress.
- No outlet for negative emotions. Children learn by example. If a child is never taught how to release his sadness or fear or other negative emotions, he may be at increased risk for depression and suicide. Early childhood stress can have a lingering effect on your child's health—mental AND physical.
- Loss of connection with the Earth. Children today spend most of their time inside buildings, disconnected from the earth and its healing electrical field. Even when they are outside, they wear rubber-soled shoes that effectively shield them from the healing energy of the Earth. There is exciting new research underway about how reconnecting with the Earth (walking barefoot), also known as "earthing," can result in profound healing of your mind and body.
And then there's the new bully on the block: the cyberbully. No longer are encounters with bullies limited to the back alley on the way home from school.
21st Century Terrorizing: The Age of the Cyberbully
Cyberbullying is a relatively new means of abuse that has received a great deal of media attention lately.Cyberbullying is defined as follows:
"Cyberbullying is when a child or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones."
For the mean-spirited, the methods for cyberbullying are endless and limited only by a child's imagination and access to technology. Children have killed each other, as well as themselves, after being involved in cyberbullying.
A recent review of 37 international studies, which explored bullying and suicide risk, concluded that children who are victims, perpetrators, or even witnesses to bullying have an increased risk for suicidal thoughts.
With social networking and electronic media expanding the ways kids can bully, tease and otherwise malign their peers, a great deal of damage can be done in a very short period of time, devastating the victim's life. The use of electronic media allows the bully to retain some "perceived distance" and even anonymity from the victim, while doing extensive and irretractable damage.
With the Internet, there are no take-backs, even if the bully later has second thoughts!
This recent take on bullying has created new levels of stress for our youth, which directly impacts suicidal behaviors. It is vitally important that you monitor what your child is doing on the Internet. For more about how to prevent cyberbullying or stop it once it starts, go to www.stopcyberbullying.org. In order to prevent teen suicide from all angles, it is vital to recognize what leads to it, and then address the causes.
How to Tell if Your Child is at Risk for Suicide
Unfortunately, there is no way to be one hundred percent sure if another human being is suicidal—even if it's your own child. There is no clear profile of the suicidal adolescent.
However, there ARE signs you can watch for. Epidemiological studies have identified variables correlated with suicide risk, and becoming familiar with them will stack the deck in your favor, giving you time to intervene before your child becomes desperate enough to harm himself.
According to the American Association of Suicidology and other organizations, most suicidal teens will have one or more of the following risk factors:
- Prior suicide attempt
- Expression of thoughts of suicide, death, dying, or the afterlife, in the context of sadness, boredom, hopelessness, loneliness or other negative feelings; risk is even higher if he has a specific suicide plan
- Presence of a psychiatric disorder (e.g., depression, drug or alcohol abuse, behavior disorders, conduct disorder and/or incarceration, etc.)
- Impulsivity, irritability, and aggressive behavior; frequent expressions of rage
- Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
- Exposure to another's suicide, especially a family member or friend
- Recent severe stressor (e.g., struggling with gender identity, unplanned pregnancy, loss of a parent, recent trauma, anticipated losses, etc.)
- Family instability or significant family conflict
The following is a general list of things to keep in mind when assessing your child for potential suicidal risk. The list is in no way comprehensive but will give you a general idea of the kinds of behaviors to notice. A child thinking about suicide may exhibit:
- Sad, anxious or "empty" mood (for example, talking about being a bad person, unworthy or not good enough)
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Changes in weight, appetite, or eating habits
- Deteriorating grooming habits
- Talking about or preoccupation with death (for example, writing poems about death)
- Declining school performance or poor school experience; feeling like he has failed to live up to his own or someone else's expectations
- Signs of psychotic thinking, such as delusions, hallucinations or bizarre thoughts
- Intolerance of praise or rewards
- Loss of pleasure/interest in social or sports activities
- Giving away prized possessions
- Dramatic changes in personality—such as acting like a rebel when he's usually timid, becoming violent or aggressive, or running away.
- Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of sadness/depression
- Deteriorating relationships with friends or family; trouble with a girlfriend or boyfriend; withdrawing from people he used to feel close to
- Out of character boredom or trouble concentrating
- Abuse of alcohol or drugs
- Physical complaints that seem to have no physical basis, such as headaches, stomachaches, etc.
You might find this Teen Suicide Risk Calculator useful. However, keep in mind that every child is different, so I would caution you to not rely exclusively on one source of information or tool.
YOU know your child best!
The bottom line is, trust your gut feelings. If you are concerned, consult a professional for help. If you believe your child is in imminent danger, take him to the nearest Emergency Department or call the police for help.
QUESTION: Do You Have Any of These Common Misconceptions?
Dr. Robert A. King, professor at Yale University and a psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center, has done extensive research on adolescent suicide. According to Dr. King, there are three main misconceptions about teen suicide:
- "My teenager might attempt suicide if he has a bad day." Although an upsetting episode is often the immediate trigger, the vast majority of adolescents who commit suicide have had long-standing emotional problems, such as depression or substance abuse.
- "If I ask my teenager about suicide, I might put the idea in her head." Research shows that distressed or previously suicidal adolescents actually feel LESS distressed or suicidal following surveys that ask them about it, rather than more so. So the best thing you can do if you are concerned that your child is suicidal is to ask. Open up honest dialog, and let her know you're concerned.
- "I should start thinking about suicide prevention when my child reaches adolescence." Some of the most effective long-term prevention measures begin in early childhood. The earlier your child learns how to effectively deal with negative emotions, the less at risk she will be.
Kids are Increasingly Targeted With Antidepressants – A Dangerous Proposition that Might Be a Driving Factor for Rising Suicide Rates
Every year, 230 million prescriptions for antidepressants are filled, making them one of the most prescribed drugs in the United States. The amount of drugs being given to U.S. children is outrageous, and the extent of the problem becomes clear when you compare the statistics with other countries. U.S. children are getting three times more prescriptions for antidepressants as kids from Germany and the Netherlands, for example.
Depression can indeed progress to suicide if left untreated. But do antidepressants work to alleviate the symptoms of depression?
NO, they don't.
Studies continue to show antidepressant drugs are not any more effective than a placebo, and in some case less effective. A study published in the January 2010 issue of JAMA, concluded there is little evidence that SSRIs (a popular group of antidepressants that includes Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft) have any benefit to people with mild to moderate depression.
SSRIs were 33 percent effective, just like a sugar pill—but with far more adverse effects, including violence and suicidal thoughts and actions. Another study presented at the Neuroscience conference in 2009 tells a similar story.
Not only are these drugs ineffective, but there is much evidence that they intensify violent thoughts and behaviors, both suicidal and homicidal. It's rather telling that seven of the last 12 school shootings were perpetrated by children who were either on antidepressants or withdrawing from them! Besides introducing risk without benefit, antidepressants may be making depression more chronic.
In an interview with medical journalist and Pulitzer Price nominee Robert Whitaker, Dr. Whitaker explains how patients who take antidepressants seem to have more relapses back into depression. In fact, 85 percent of people treated with antidepressant drugs become chronically depressed, compared to only 15 percent who stay well for a long period of time.
So, antidepressants appear to be changing depression from a "transitory" illness into a more chronic illness. Antidepressants are clearly not the answer for a depressed child or adolescent. But if we take those off the table, then what is the answer?
A Technique Offering Great Hope—and it's FREE
My favorite technique for clearing out the negative emotions that sometimes lead to depression is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). EFT isn't just for adults—it's being used by children for all sorts of different issues ranging from stomachaches to bedwetting, sprains and strains, phobias, social anxiety, learning problems, hyperactivity, sleep difficulties, stress management—and depression.
Children are generally quick learners, as well as being very open to learning something new. The earlier you teach your child EFT, the better.
Some innovative groups have developed wonderful EFT learning tools for children in the form of cuddly stuffed bears with the tapping points marked on them (TappyBear, Magic Buttons Bear), which makes EFT fun. Children can project their fears onto the bear and tap on him, which they sometimes find more fun than tapping on themselves.
One EFT practitioner, Mary Stafford M.Ed.,LPC,EFT-Adv, has even developed an EFT "shortcut" for kids, which simplifies the process by limiting the tapping points to only four (instead of 8 to 10) when teaching EFT to children.
EFT has been successfully taught to children as young as age 2 (here's a video of 2 year old using EFT.)
Teaching your children how to do their own "emotional housekeeping" through EFT is a gift that will serve them well throughout their lives. The time to start is BEFORE issues begin to appear—so the earlier, the better.
Other Practical Suggestions for Nurturing Your Child's Mental Health
In addition to EFT, there are eight important strategies to employ if your child is struggling with his emotions. These strategies have nothing but positive effects and are generally very inexpensive to implement.
- Take time to really talk to, and listen to, your child. Sometimes the difference between feeling helpless and feeling hope is just knowing that you are loved. Teach positive coping skills, and let your child know it is okay—even desirable— to ask for help.
- Control access to potentially dangerous items in your home, such as guns and pills.
- Make sure your child is getting adequate exercise. Regular exercise is one of the secret weapons against depression, helping to normalize insulin levels while boosting the "feel good" hormones in your child's brain. Getting them moving can do wonders for their mental health (and yours!) and is a major improvement over sitting in front of a television or computer.
- Encourage your child to go outside and play in the sunshine. Safe sun exposure allows your child's body to produce vitamin D, which is great for his mood. One study even found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to depression than those who received adequate vitamin D. Just make sure your child doesn't overdo it and get sunburned.
- Limit the amount of sugar, soda, grain, and processed food your child eats. Doing so will help normalize his insulin level and prevent his becoming another victim of childhood obesity. Sugar causes chronic inflammation, which disrupts immune function and can wreak havoc on the brain; sugar consumption is directly linked with depression.
- Supplement your child's diet with a high quality omega-3 fatty acid, such as krill oil. This may be one of the most significant nutrients preventing depression. DHA is one of the Omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and krill oil, and many children don't get enough of it. Low DHA levels have been linked to depression.
- Make sure your child gets adequate sleep. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Staying up texting friends or playing on the computer until the wee hours of the morning are going to have a detrimental effect on your child's mood, as well as on his overall health. Adequate rest has been proven to protect teenagers from depression and suicidal thoughts.
- Encourage your teen in some sort of spiritual pursuit, or equally meaningful construct. The inclusion of these concepts has been found to promote resilience and healthy adolescent development. Studies show that adolescents with higher levels of spiritual well being have fewer depressive symptoms and fewer risk-taking behaviors.