Child and adolescent suicide: epidemiology, risk factors, and approaches to prevention

Mirjami Pelkonen, Mauri Marttunen
Paediatric Drugs 2003, 5 (4): 243-65
Suicide is rare in childhood and early adolescence, and becomes more frequent with increasing age. The latest mean worldwide annual rates of suicide per 100 000 were 0.5 for females and 0.9 for males among 5-14-year-olds, and 12.0 for females and 14.2 for males among 15-24-year-olds, respectively. In most countries, males outnumber females in youth suicide statistics. Although the rates vary between countries, suicide is one of the commonest causes of death among young people. Due to the growing risk for suicide with increasing age, adolescents are the main target of suicide prevention. Reportedly, less than half of young people who have committed suicide had received psychiatric care, and thus broad prevention strategies are needed in healthcare and social services. Primary care clinicians are key professionals in recognizing youth at risk for suicide. This article reviews recent population-based psychological autopsy studies of youth suicides and selected follow-up studies of clinical populations and suicide attempters, analyzing risk factors for youth suicides. As youth suicides are rare, research on risk factors for youth suicidal ideation and attempted suicide is also briefly reviewed. The relationship between psychiatric disorders and adolescent suicide is now well established. Mood disorders, substance abuse and prior suicide attempts are strongly related with youth suicides. Factors related to family adversity, social alienation and precipitating problems also contribute to the risk of suicide. The main target of effective prevention of youth suicide is to reduce suicide risk factors. Recognition and effective treatment of psychiatric disorders, e.g. depression, are essential in preventing child and adolescent suicides. Research on the treatment of diagnosed depressive disorders and of those with suicidal behavior is reviewed. In the treatment of youth depression, psychosocial treatments have proved to be useful and efficacious. Although studies on the effectiveness of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are limited in number, evidence supports their use as first-line antidepressant medication in youth depression. Available evidence suggests that various treatment modalities are useful in the treatment of suicidal youths, e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy and specialized emergency room interventions. Much of the decrease in suicide ideation and suicide attempts seems to be attributable to nonspecific elements in treatment. For high-risk youth, providing continuity of care is a challenge, since they are often noncompliant and commonly drop out or terminate their treatment prematurely. Developing efficacious treatments for suicidal children and adolescents would offer better possibilities to prevent suicides.

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