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A new report urges pediatricians to screen teens for suicide risks

Jun 27, 2016

The American Academy of Pediatrics says pediatricians should routinely screen teens for suicide risks.

A report released Monday by the AAP provides doctors with guidelines on screening patients between the ages of 15 to 19 for suicidal thoughts and identifying risk factors linked to teen suicide attempts.

The report, "Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents," replaces a previous version that was published in 2007, when suicide was the third-leading cause of death among teens. Now it's second, exceeded only by unintentional injuries, like drug overdoses and motor vehicle accidents.

Risk factors for suicide attempts include a family history of suicide, a history of physical or sexual abuse, mood disorders, drug and alcohol use, and bullying.

Bullying has always been a major issue for adolescents, but there is now greater recognition of the connection between bullying and suicide, the report’s lead author, Benjamin Shain said in a press release.

Dewey Cornell is a clinical psychologist and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project. He tells USA TODAY bullying doesn’t necessarily lead to suicidal thoughts or actions, but can have a powerful impact when combined with other stresses, like the internet. According to Cornell:

The internet can have a magnifying effect on bullying because the adolescent’s humiliation is public and he or she feels helpless to stop it from continuing. It is bad enough to be teased and rejected by a few classmates, but far worse when it is visible to all of your friends and potentially everyone in the world.

The FDA has required black box warning labels on antidepressants since 2004. That's the label that says the medications can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions in people under age 26. This has made doctors hesitant to prescribe antidepressants, but new research has indicated that the benefits of these medications outweigh the risks for many patients, according to the report.

The AAP says pediatricians should routinely ask adolescent patients if they have thoughts of harming themselves, and screen for other factors associated with increased suicide risk. And they should refer patients for appropriate mental health evaluation and treatment when needed.

Dr. Christine Moutier is with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the nation's largest suicide prevention organization. She said in a statement:

Physicians, including pediatricians, can play a critical role in identifying mental health conditions and in preventing suicide but it's imperative that healthcare systems gear up for the needed system changes to better detect and care for people at risk for suicide. The AAP Report affirms what we've learned through research and analysis – that mental health is just as important as physical health – and we need to adequately train those who provide health care services to our families. Our children's lives depend on it and we must not let them down.

If you or someone you know shows the warning signs of suicide, seek help as soon as possible by contacting a medical or mental health professional, or by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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