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Many Teens Considering Suicide Do Not Receive Specialized Mental Health Care

Science Update

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Most adolescents who are considering suicide or who have attempted suicide do not receive specialized mental health services, according to an analysis published online August 15, 2012, in Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association.

Background

National survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that approximately 14 percent of high school students seriously consider suicide each year, 11 percent have a suicide plan, and 6 percent attempt suicide. Other research has suggested that less than half of teens who attempt suicide received mental health services in the year prior to their attempt.

Kathleen Merikangas, Ph.D., of NIMH and colleagues analyzed data from the National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), a nationally representative, face-to-face survey of more than 10,000 teens ages 13 to 18. They asked teens whether they had any suicidal thoughts, plans, or actions (ideation) over a one-year period prior to the survey. They also completed a structured diagnostic interview regarding the full range of mental disorders including mood, anxiety, eating and anxiety disorders and whether they had received treatment for emotional or behavioral problems in the past 12 months. Respondents were asked to differentiate between receiving care from a mental health specialist such as a social worker, psychiatrist or other mental health professional, and receiving care from a general service provider, such as a primary care physician.

Results of the study

The survey revealed that, within the past year, 3.6 percent of adolescents had suicidal thoughts, but did not make a specific plan or suicide attempt. In addition, 0.6 percent reported having a plan, and 1.9 percent reported having made a suicide attempt within the past year.

Suicidal behavior among youth was not only associated with major depression, but also with a range of other mental health problems including eating, anxiety, substance use and behavior disorders, as well as physical health problems. Between 50 and 75 percent of those teens who reported having suicidal ideation had recent contact with a service provider. However, most only had three or fewer visits, suggesting that treatment tends to be terminated prematurely. Moreover, most teens with suicidal ideation did not receive specialized mental health care.

Significance

The results of this study suggest that depression and other mood disorders are not the only pathways to suicide. They also highlight the importance of integrating risk assessment for suicide into routine physical and mental health care for teens. Even if adolescents are in treatment, they should continue to be monitored for suicidal ideation and behaviors, the researchers concluded.

Reference

Husky M, Olfson M, He J, Nock M, Swanson S, Merikangas K. Twelve-month suicidal symptoms and use of services among adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey. Psychiatric Services in Advance, Aug 15, 2012.