Adolescent Suicide

There are some gender-based differences in adolescent suicide. Girls attempt suicide more frequently than boys, but boys complete the act more frequently than girls. Girls tend to employ passive methods such as drug overdoses that are less disfiguring and less certain to be lethal, while boys are apt to use more violent and certain methods such as hanging or shooting themselves. Boys don't typically commit suicide as an extreme reaction to a single precipitating event, even a great disappointment. Careful examination of individual cases shows that what appear to be immediate precipitating events are better seen as the culmination of a set of difficulties the boy has experienced over a substantially longer period of time. In a study of 154 adolescents who killed themselves, the researchers concluded that a sense of hopelessness was the most critical factor.

Suicide sets off such an intense and prolonged reaction among immediate family and friends that the question of whether they should have been able to prevent it is inevitably raised. Warning signals have been defined, including unusually stressful events in a boy's life, mood changes, disturbed sleep and eating patterns, statements suggesting despair, and even verbal mention of suicide. Only the last of these symptoms, however, is specifically predictive of suicide plans, and it may be a way of expressing despair rather than a forewarning. Parents of adolescents shouldn't generally regard themselves as on a chronic suicide watch.

What does matter is whether parents, teachers and other concerned adults consistently try to maintain close relations with adolescent boys. There are many reasons to do this besides suicide prevention. Adults who are close to kids and not disposed to deny the evidence before their eyes and ears will sense major mood shifts and can raise concerned inquiries or guide boys to professional help if the mood shifts seem beyond parental remedy. Sometimes a change of school or a new activity or expressions of interest and concern from other people will effectively counter a major downward mood swing. Adults who are relatively detached from their children may not notice signals of despair.

Some suicide attempts are social in nature—dramatic ways of showing how desperate and unhappy a person feels. Others reflect a person's ambivalence, a wish both to end it all and not to end it-but to have relief from the pain of despair.

©2007 Eli Newberger

Eli Newberger, M.D., a leading figure in the movement to improve the protection and care of children, is renowned for his ability to bring together good sense and science on the main issues of family life. A pediatrician and author of many influential works on child abuse, he teaches at Harvard Medical School and founded the Child Protection Team and the Family Development Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. From his research and practice he has derived a philosophy that focuses on the strength and resilience of parent-child relationships, and a practice oriented to compassion and understanding, rather than blame and punishment. He is the author of The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Charaacter and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife Carolyn, a developmental and clinical child psychologist." www.elinewberger.com or E-Mail.

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