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Teen Suicide Subject of Subcommittee Hearing

Suicide claims the lives of more than 30,000 Americans each year. In 1998, there were more teenagers and young adults who died from suicide than from cancer, AIDS, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, and birth defects combined, and in that same year, it was the eighth leading cause of death. For these reasons, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families held a hearing on September 7 to discuss issues surrounding adolescent and young adult suicide.

Opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Christopher Dodd (D-CT) stated, “While some may view this discussion as futile or macabre in subject, it is my belief that this hearing’s message is one of hope, offering promise that we can better understand the causes of youth suicide so that we can prevent our children from turning to this tragic option.”

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher testified that “the overriding tragedy of all this is that so many suicides are preventable.” He said, “It is estimated that 90 to 95 percent of suicides are associated with a history of mental illness, usually depression, a treatable disease,” adding that, “of greater concern is the fact that many professionals do not recognize suicide as a preventable cause of death.”

On a more positive note, Dr. Satcher told the subcommittee, “We can be encouraged by modest declines in youth suicide rates between 1994 and 1998, but we cannot be complacent.” He recommended a “three-pronged approach to preventing suicide using the acronym AIM-A for Awareness, which is aimed at increasing public awareness, I for Intervention, which calls for enhancing the services and programs to prevent suicide, and M for Methodology, which spells out the need for more research to understand the risk and protective factors of suicide.”

Stan Collins of the International Youth Council Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program shared some insights into how his organization attempts to prevent suicide. “The problem that the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program runs into is adults,” he said. “They still don’t like the ‘s word.'” He emphasized that “talking about suicide is the first step to preventing it, to breaking down the terrible isolation that a person considering it feels,” and added, “Our message is that ‘it is okay to ask for help.'”

Two mothers who had lost their teenage sons to suicide shared their experiences with the subcommittee. Grace Eaton said that her son was an athlete and an honor roll student who planned to attend Colby College in Maine. “We as a family knew he was experiencing some anxiety about senior year, acceptance at college, and his performance in sports, but we felt that these were normal teenage experiences,” she said. “If I had been more aware of the warning signs of suicide, it is possible that I might have been able to assist my son Glen and prevent this tragedy.”

Pat Stebbins urged the subcommittee for “more funding to deal with the growing population of the mentally ill.” She said, “There are federal programs designed to improve access to community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment,” and added, “these programs are severely underfunded.” Dr. David Jobes of The Catholic University of America said he has devoted the past 18 years to the study and prevention of teen suicide. “Our data suggest that for those suicidal students who seek treatment in a counseling center, over 70% clinically improve over the course of treatment and of those about 50% can completely extinguish a suicidal crisis in only a handful of counseling sessions.”

Sen. Dodd told the witnesses that Congress is in the process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and he asked them to think about suggestions for language that might be helpful in addressing the problem of teen suicide.

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