Teenage suicide threats go unheeded

1st November 1996 at 00:00
AUSTRALIA. Suicide is second only to accident as the largest cause of death among Australia's young people. Yet a recent survey has shown that more than half of teachers and 40 per cent of doctors failed to recognise the important role they could play in helping prevent teenagers from killing themselves.

A conference in Sydney was told that the level of training for dealing with suicidal adolescents was low and that both teachers and doctors tended not to take threats of suicide seriously.

A survey of more than 1,600 doctors and nearly 500 school teachers found that both groups wrongly thought pre-suicide indicators, such as giving away prized possessions, drug abuse and conflict with parents, were insignificant.

The rate of suicide for young Australian males is about 30 per 100,000, although in small towns it is estimated at about 60 per 100,000. Suicide attempts are said to be 50 times the completed rate. Young males in Australia commit suicide at about five times the rate of young women.

Psychologists from a child and adolescent psychiatry unit in the state of Victoria conducted the survey of doctors and teachers. They reported that teenagers who said they were going to kill themselves were in a high-risk bracket, yet more than one in 10 of the teachers surveyed said that if confronted with a suicidal student they would not take any direct action. The psychologists said the evidence from the survey highlighted the need for better training of teachers and doctors.

In a second study, a researcher at the Central Queensland University, Dr Sansee Jirojwong, found that suicidal youngsters did not know who to turn to for help. They did not trust the police or social workers, did not know how to contact a counsellor and were disillusioned by how long it took to get an answer from telephone helplines.

Dr Jirojwong said young people contemplating suicide were more likely to seek help from friends than official bodies. When asked, very few youngsters mentioned contacting community organisations or counselling services.

There had been a breakdown in trust between potential suicides and conventional services, Dr Jirojwong said. His research showed that some youths would kill themselves without giving any warning signs while others said they would talk to friends, family or partners. But a majority of those questioned said they would do nothing if a friend told them he or she was contemplating suicide.

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