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Suicide and attempted suicide are not rare occurrences among teens and young adults. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24, surpassed only by car accidents and homicides. In fact, each year at least 2,000 teenagers kill themselves - and an estimated 100,000 to 400,000 young people attempt suicide. Females make three times as many attempts as males - but males are three times more likely to succeed.
Beyond the attempted and completed suicides, untold numbers of teens and young adults have seriously thought about killing themselves. A 1991 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 27% of high school students had considered suicide, 16% had gone as far as devising a suicide plan, and 8% had made a suicide attempt. More recently, the National College Health Risk Behavior Survey found that 10% of students had contemplated suicide within the last year, 7% had planned their death, and 2% had made at least one attempt. The reality is that in a school classroom of 30 students, 3 to 8 of your classmates have been thinking about killing themselves. Scary thought.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of suicide is its stealth nature. Although some people show clear signs of emotional distress before committing suicide, others do not. It's not uncommon for shocked friends and acquaintances to describe the suicide victim as seemingly cheerful, popular, and high achieving. Clearly, many of us are masters at hiding our deep emotional pain. That's why it's so important to know the risk factors for suicide and to be alert to signs of trouble in yourself or in the people around you.
Who's at Risk?
Given the dangerous mix of an overwhelming life event, lack of social support, and feelings of isolation and hopelessness, many of us might consider giving up. But some people appear more vulnerable than others because of their biochemical makeup or life experiences. Here are some of the factors that increase the risk of suicide:
Depression. People with a history of depression are at greater risk, especially those who suffer the mood swings of manic depression (or bipolar disorder).
Substance abuse. More than half of young people who commit suicide have a history of alcohol or drug abuse.
Family history. Depression, suicide, or substance abuse among family members increases the risk of suicide.
Physical or sexual abuse. The risk of suicide is five times greater among people who have been physically abused and three times greater among those who have suffered sexual abuse.
Low self-esteem. People who feel inferior to others, worthless, or expendable - and those who believe that their life "doesn't matter" - are more likely to kill themselves.
Social isolation. Suicide has been called a "deficiency" disorder - a problem caused by a lack of social connections. Strong bonds with other people - family, friends, spouse, or life partner - are a lifeline in times of great stress or disappointment. People who lack a close friend, who feel rejected or lonely, or who have no sense of belonging to any group are extremely vulnerable to suicide.
Stressful life events. School failure (or intense pressure to excel), loss of an important relationship, death of a friend or family member, rejection by a person or group, and increasing feelings of isolation or hopelessness are common triggers of suicide.
If you recognize any of the following warning signs in yourself or in a friend, get help IMMEDIATELY.
Depression, sadness, hopelessness, or an empty feeling
Withdrawal from friends and activities
Behavioral changes. These include increased substance abuse, skipping school, irritability, extreme mood swings, frequent crying.
Preoccupation with death, suicide threats, or statements such as "Everyone would be better off without me."
Loss of appetite or overeating
Neglect of appearance
Recent interest in dangerous activities or risky sexual practices
Giving away prized possessions
Sudden, unexplained appearance of calm or peacefulness after a period of deep depression
If you're in high school, talk with a trusted adult (parent, teacher, school counselor, or clergyperson). College students should call the campus crisis intervention center, local suicide prevention center, or a suicide prevention hotline, such as suicidehotlines.com. Trained counselors - many of whom are suicide survivors themselves - will get you the help you need. Depression and suicidal feelings can be overcome with psychological counseling, medication, or a combination of the two. No matter how intense your pain is now, it WILL subside and you WILL feel better with professional help.
If you are worried about a friend, ask directly if he or she is considering suicide. Tell your friend that you care deeply, that you will not abandon him or her, and that help is available. Don't leave your friend alone! Call a school official or crisis counselor immediately. This is no time to worry about betraying a confidence! Your friend's life may depend on your contacting other people who can help.
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