If you’re like me, you’ve found it hard to get the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter of innocents out of your mind.
Even though Penny and my four children are all grown up, I can still see them as first-graders – getting on the bus and excited to go to school to play and learn. Tears just come to my eyes every time I hear about how the parents and classmates of those killed at Sandy Hook are coping.
It seems all agree that we have dropped the ball when it comes to addressing mental disorders in this country. Can we predict violence? Recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that we are very, very poor at this – especially when it comes to suicide.
Most teens who commit suicide or attempt it have received some form of mental health treatment. In this study, a full 55 percent had already received counseling. Additionally, the study found that one in eight teens consider suicide, with 33 percent of them making plans to do it or making an actual suicide attempt. I am appalled by this.
Let’s put the risk factors together.
In the first group are mood problems. Depression and anxiety head the list, with more serious issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia on there, too, as are eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Next up are drug problems. Here, alcohol leads the pack, with amphetamines (speed), cocaine and heroin following behind. What is new here, though, is the easy availability of prescription narcotics such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
The issue that underlies all of this is teenage impulsivity – “just do it.” I know one patient who, at 19, was a sex addict. He didn’t think twice about sleeping with his brother’s wife. The night his brother confronted him, he tried to end it all by slashing his own jugular. Lucky for him, he never had an anatomy lesson. What he did was wrong, but it didn’t mean a death sentence.
Experts chiming in on this study agree that usual treatments such as psychotherapy, drug counseling and medications have their benefits for at-risk teens, but also have their limitations. Experts also agree that addressing the family and social structure is critical. Kids whose parents bring them to counseling, monitor their medications, take them to group sessions such as Alcoholics Anonymous and stay in touch with the school are helping to reduce their child’s suicide risk.
But the other thing that’s clear is that we have more questions than we have answers.
We put so much research into cancer and so little into mental health. Why is that? Last year, we had roughly 14,000 murders and 37,000 known suicides in this country. A person is twice as likely to commit suicide as they are to be murdered. Are you surprised by this statistic? I certainly was.
My spin: If you think you have an at-risk teen, then you probably have. Seek help and stand by them; it matters. And let’s lobby for more mental health research to address this problem. Stay well.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, professor and broadcast journalist. He hosts a radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 87.7.