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New data on youth suicide rates underscore need for mental health care

Posted Oct 22 2008 4:32pm

Recent news of increased rates of suicide among individuals between 10 and 24 years of age illustrate the need for and value of mental health care, mental health professionals say.

In just one year, the number of suicides in this age group increased by 8 percent (from 4,232 in 2003 to 4,599 in 2004), which is the greatest increase in more than 15 years. In addition, the most pronounced increases were evident among adolescent girls: a 76 percent increase among girls aged 10 to 14 years and a 32 percent increase among girls aged 15 to 19 years.

Mental health treatment — both pharmacologic and psychotherapeutic — has been proven to be highly effective in reducing depressive and other symptoms, thereby reducing the risk of suicide.

Debate continues about whether the increase in suicides resulted from physicians’ reluctance to prescribe antidepressants to youth in response to “black box” warnings of suicide risk associated with these medications, as the Food and Drug Administration has required since late 2004.

Other possible reasons for the higher suicide rates are increased prevalence of mental illness and greater use of alcohol and other drugs. However, research indicates that the risk of suicide is commonly highest just before treatment begins and that this risk declines once therapy is under way.

“Treatments for mental illness have been proven effective and can help individuals achieve a fulfilling life of recovery. However, there are many barriers, including inadequate funding and stigma, that prevent children and adults from receiving the therapy and other support services they need,” said Debra L. Wentz, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Inc.

Dr. Wentz said it is critical that family members and friends be alert to the signs and symptoms of mental illness and the warning signs that individuals may be considering suicide (see lists of signs following

With this critical knowledge, a family member or friend will have a greater opportunity to encourage loved ones to seek assistance.

“Recognizing signs and symptoms is a critical first step. In addition, we must erase the stigma that presents a tremendous barrier for these individuals to obtaining the care they need,” said Dr. Wentz. “It is time for us all to recognize that mental illness should be treated as any other disease.”

What to do if there is a concern that someone might try to commit suicide?

▪ Take it seriously: 75 percent of individuals considering suicide give a warning to a friend or family member.

▪ Be willing to listen: Ask the person what is bothering him. Persist to overcome reluctance to talk about it. Ask if the person is considering suicide, but do not attempt to argue him out of suicide. Rather, show that you care and understand, and say that depression can be treated and problems can be solved.

▪ Seek professional help: Be actively involved in encouraging the person to locate and go to a physician or mental health professional. A complete listing of local community mental health agencies throughout New Jersey may be found by visiting NJAMHA’s website.

▪ In an acute crisis: Take the person at risk to an emergency room or walk-in clinic at a psychiatric hospital. Stay with him until help is available. If these options are unavailable, call 9-1-1 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

▪ Follow-up on treatment: By continuing to show support, you can increase the likelihood that your friend or loved one will continue with treatment.

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