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'Contagious' suicide a concern in teens

Wednesday - 5/22/2013, 8:52am  ET

WASHINGTON - The third-leading cause of death among young people isn't disease or accident -- it's suicide. And according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a suicide happens every 13.7 minutes.

How a community reacts to a teenager taking his or her own life can have profound effects on teens already suffering from a sense of alienation or hopelessness.

Dr. Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards for the National Association of School Psychologists, says there is something called "suicide contagion" that can occur when a teen witnesses the way a community grieves and feels.

"'Wow, look at all the people paying attention to this other individual I want people to pay attention to me, I want my message to be received, and this is how I can do it,'" he says, giving an example of a teen's possible thoughts.

For that reason, Rossen says a school community needs to emphasize that the solution to feelings of depression and hopelessness is seeking help, not suicide.

But that's exactly the challenge: When teens -- or adults -- are feeling depressed, the ability to reach out is compromised. So parents and friends need to take the first step and ask.

Rossen says it's also not true that talking about suicide will "plant a seed" or put the idea into a child's head that suicide is a viable alternative.

"What it can do is help prevent it, as you're opening up conversation and opening yourself up to discussing it with your child," he says.

Rossen says if you're worried about a teenager, ask him or her if something is wrong. It may open a door the teen is waiting to walk through.

"It's a lot easier for a child or adolescent to nod their head to that question than to proactively say, 'I'm thinking of hurting myself,'" Rossen says.

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior director of research and special projects at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, agrees that asking if a teen is thinking about suicide can act as a safety valve.

Depression and suicidal thoughts are "something that they keep inside, and it builds up and builds up and if it feels like a big secret that they can't share, it gets more and more powerful," Harkavy-Friedman says.

She adds that once the door opens to talk about it, there's a sense of relief and the teen finds that he or she doesn't have to suffer alone.

Parents may have a tough time differentiating between the daily drama that comes with a teenager and a genuine cry for help. Rossen says to take a child's statements about their feelings seriously.

Statements like "I just want to die" or "Nobody really cares if I'm around anyway" shouldn't be dismissed as teenage hyperbole.

"In some cases, it might be," Rossen says, "but you never want to take that risk. Take the threat seriously."

Signs that kids are struggling:

  • Grades drop off
  • Interest in normal activities declines
  • Friendships languish
  • Possessions may be given away
  • A formerly sociable teen suddenly turns down invitations
  • Appetite changes
  • Sleep patterns change

Here are some resources:

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @KateRyanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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