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Suicide warning signs can be hard to detect

Suicide, though, is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24.

Published December 22, 2005

How to help a suicidal individual

The apparent suicide of an 18-year-old with a close family and a promising future might seem surprising.

But not to mental health specialists, who know the sad truth: Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24.

While teenagers sometimes take their lives when faced with devastating tragedies or long-running depression, suicide attempts can also be triggered by incidents that adults might see as a minor setback.

An argument, a break up, a bad grade.

"What's unique for adolescents in terms of risk factors for suicides is their sensitivity to precipitating factors," said Dr. Mark Cavitt, medical director of pediatric psychiatry at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Even after a suicide, a parent may look back at a precipitating incident and it will "seem remarkably insignificant," Cavitt said. Teens are less secure about their own identities and might not have learned how to cope with stressful situations or problems.

The difficulty of knowing what will traumatize a troubled teenager only makes it harder to predict which teens are really at risk.

When a teenager commits suicide, all kinds of problems, from depression to drug abuse, will likely become evident, said Dr. Wade Myers, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

"In hindsight, you can see these risk factors are always present," Myers said. "Most teens who have these risk factors don't commit suicide."

Even mental health professionals working with troubled teens do a poor job forecasting which teens will actually attempt suicide, Cavitt said.

Depression, family stress and change can be risk factors for suicide, but money provides no protection, said Donna Cacciatore, director of suicide prevention at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

"Suicide crosses all socioeconomic lines, all income levels," she said. "It does not discriminate."

Some teens may openly discuss feelings of depression. Parents and friends should always take any talk of suicide seriously, Cacciatore and others said.

But sometimes warning signs may be more subtle: a loss of energy or appetite, withdrawal from the family, slipping grades. If you're worried, ask.

"Asking if they feel depressed or suicidal is not going to put the idea into their head. That's a myth," Myers said. "If you can get the child to talk about it, it might lead to them getting help. It lets the child know they're cared about."

This time of year can be especially hard for people who are fighting depression.

"There's sometimes a magical expectation around the holidays," Cavitt said. "When it doesn't happen, that emphasizes the disconnect between what the individual wants out of life and what the individual gets out of life."

[Last modified December 22, 2005, 20:50:04]

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