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Vol. LVIII, No. 6
March 24, 2006

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Brent Shares Research on Adolescent Suicide

On the front page...

An NIMH report published in 2000 estimated that 8 million American children and adolescents suffer from serious behavioral, emotional and cognitive disorders. Suicide is currently the third leading cause of death among 15-to-24-year olds.

To find successful interventions, NIH supports nationwide programs in universities and research hospitals, among them the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh. That's where Dr. David A. Brent, professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and epidemiology, has been continuously funded by NIMH since 1985. He spoke on "Suicidal Risk in Adolescents: Assessment and Treatment," at the Great Teachers lecture series Feb. 8 in Lipsett Amphitheater.


Dr. David A. Brent  

"Having some thought of wanting to die is quite common in adolescents," Brent began, "at around 20 percent. As you get ideation with a plan, or with intent, that is much less common."

For medically serious suicide attempts, the prevalence is about 1-2 percent. Girls are about twice as likely to attempt as boys, and of those who attempt, between 15 and 30 percent will repeat within a year. "This is concerning because suicidal behavior is the most significant risk factor for completed suicide," Brent said, "with a 10- to 60-fold increase in risk."

Yet there is good news. "I would like to see this on the cover of the New York Times," Brent declared. "The suicide rate among adolescents has been declining for about a decade." We don't yet know why. People who are interested in anti-depressants think the decrease reflects increased sales, he noted, and people interested in gun control have correlated the decrease with that.

"If you only have time to look at one assessment factor," he said, "the most important is the nature of the suicidality, because that's what drives the risk: specifically, the degree to which the person has intent to kill himself or herself at that moment."

To assess ideation, the clinician should progress from less specific questions ("Have you ever thought you'd be better off dead?") to more specific ("Do you have a plan?").

Other important dimensions of ideation are frequency and intensity, "but the fact that somebody has suicidal ideation only occasionally is not that reassuring, because it's really the 'worst point' that's the most dangerous. Somebody can impulsively act on a suicidal urge; that's really what you need to target."

Brent recalled a teenager "who had saved up 90 pills, overdosed, and then claimed it was an accident. So look at what people do rather than at their own report — including, interestingly enough, whether they've communicated intent to someone."

Brent described a variety of risk factors for suicidal behavior, among them psychological characteristics such as hopelessness; aggression and impulsivity; a social skills deficit; and homosexuality/ bisexuality. He was careful to clarify that "homosexuality and bisexuality are not synonymous with pathology, but the response of society is deviant. There's so much stigma. Victimization, rejection and bullying place these kids at a much higher risk of suicidal behavior."

  Dr. David Brent of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh presents recent clinical and research findings on teen suicide risk.

Family and environmental factors such as discord, abuse and neglect are also significant. "If you could eliminate sexual abuse," Brent stated, "you could eliminate about one-fifth of suicidal behavior." In collaboration with colleagues at Columbia, Brent is engaged in an ongoing study indicating how suicidal behavior runs in families. He stressed that this is not accounted for by mood disorders alone, but also because of the familial transmission of impulsive aggression, probably related to genetic factors. "While this could take years to prove," said Brent, "from a clinical point of view we know that it's a significant factor."

Brent emphasized how adolescents' risky behaviors can be offset by a few core processes: having dinner with your kids every night; being involved in their activities; seeing that kids have a connection with schools and protecting them from "deviant peer groups."

"The relationship between mood disorders and suicide is intimate, though it is not the only risk factor," Brent continued. Depression increases the risk for suicidal behavior 10- to 50-fold; 80 percent of attempters and 60 percent of completers are depressed. Some studies suggest that improved treatment of depression reduces suicidality; others show reduction in suicide with use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

On the other hand, Brent noted, such treatment may not reduce suicidal risk, since the most suicidal individuals are excluded from clinical trials of depression.

"It's a curious finding," he said, "that suicidal behavior and mood don't move entirely in concert. Suicidality is multifactorial."

There are very few studies on treatment of suicidal youth, and the ones that have been done are not that promising. "This one is kind of humbling," said Brent. "The most powerful effect came in a study using follow-up postcards sent to teens and saying things like 'I'm concerned about you,' which shows how nonspecific factors may be the most potent."

He also noted areas that haven't been sufficiently looked at "but should be, such as lithium as protection against suicide."

What do you do with somebody who's suicidal? There are a few important considerations: a safety plan; case management to determine appropriate level of care, and to ensure return for treatment; analysis of the attempt; focus on cognition and the most relevant factors leading to the attempt; a relapse prevention session, including role-playing to access crucial skills.

"We teach them a simple emotional regulation technique to identify at what point they're so hot they're going to lose control, but can still turn back; we try to work out with them and the family permission for this kid to walk out of the room to cool off.

"Ultimately, we want these kids and their parents to know everything we know about depression and suicidal behavior, which unfortunately isn't all that much. Transparency is a good thing. I will never put somebody on a medication per se. I'll say these are the benefits, these are the risks, but it's up to you. Not that you don't sometimes have to hospitalize people, but over the long run, you want people to take responsibility and control over their own illness." Common sense advice includes exercising, engaging in enjoyable activities and getting enough sleep.

Asked whether talking with kids about suicide increases incidence, Brent cited a recent study that proved it doesn't.

"Here is the main issue in somebody who is suicidal," he said. "Simultaneously these kids have two wishes." He turned both palms up, side-by-side, and rhythmically moved them up and down, as if hefting two objects of equal weight. "They have a wish to die and a wish to live. The two are in balance, and we have to find how to strengthen the balance in the direction of life."

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