Suicide not the preserve of loners

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
FRANCE: Jane Marshall reports on a study which seeks to find out why teenagers try to kill themselves.

EIGHT hundred young people commit suicide in France every year, and up to 200,000 attempt it, according to a groundbreaking new study.

The report, produced by Inserm, the health and medical research institute, dispels the image of the suicidal teenager as a lonely and isolated individual. It also underlines the scale of the youth suicide problem.

Suicide is the second highest cause of death among 15 to 25-year-olds, with between 40,000 and 60,000 attempts a year which are serious enough for hospitalisation and up to 140,000 other cases.

The French study, which builds on previous research, was carried out at 21 secondary schools in the Gironde area by Inserm research director Marie Choquet and psychiatrist Xavier Pommereau.

They questioned school nurses and about 1,000 students aged 11 to 21. They were aiming to identify the characteristics of potentially suicidal teenagers, to study the treatment and advice school nurses offered them and to measure health professionals' perception of the risk of suicide and how they dealt with it.

The report reveals that more than twice as many girls as boys attempted suicide - nearly one in five girls and one in 10 boys - and that suicidal youngsters tended to be olde than their non-suicidal classmates, with a high proportion aged 16 to 18.

Other distinguishing features were the likelihood that they had repeated at least one school year, suffered more from depression, and were more than twice as likely to take tranquillisers or sleeping pills, to drink alcohol, smoke or take drugs.

Behaviour traits such as running away or self-injury were much more common, and they were more likely to have been the victims of physical or sexual violence.

However, the authors found little difference in their social life:

"Contrary to common belief, young people with suicidal tendencies are not isolated and do not stay in their own little corner. They go out, pursue leisure and cultural activities, read, go to the cinema, like any other young person of the same sex and age."

Another unexpected finding was that those at risk were not neglected by the medical services, but were "multi-consultants of GPs, school doctors, psychiatrists and social workers".

The report recommended school nurses should raise the question of suicide when dealing with pupils who displayed signs of at-risk behaviour. Nurses taking part in the inquiry identified only 5 per cent of pupils who had attempted suicide, though they would have found more than three-quarters if they had broached the subject.

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