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Richard Attias

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Tackling One of the Biggest Threats to Our Children: Suicide

Posted: 03/21/2012 12:29 pm

While I usually speak about economic issues or geopolitic or global issues, today I would like to discuss an issue that's about care for our kids, about the next generation and about a specific danger they are facing: suicide.

When we think of the threats that our children face out in the world, we may worry about stranger-danger, or tired car-drivers who aren't focussed on the road, or a host of other possible things that could affect their safety. But in fact suicide is one of the greatest causes of death amongst young people -- the third for young people between the ages of 15 and 24. These figures are pretty shocking. But the good news is that suicide is preventable.

The problem with suicidality is that it is frequently misdiagnosed and therefore goes untreated. Dr. Kelly Posner, from the New York State Psychiatric Institute, says that 50 percent of people who commit suicide have seen their primary care doctor in the month before they died. "We need more screening and more of the right kind of treatment," she said in a recent interview with New York Family magazine. "I worry much more about undertreatment than overtreatment."

Posner and a group of researchers from Columbia University have developed a sophisticated and scientifically validated measure to assess how at risk particular individuals may be. It is an evidence-based screening process called the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (known by the acronym C-SSRS). The program launched in November 2011 and has been welcomed by the medical community.

The process is simple. A questionnaire is distributed across jails, schools, hospitals, and other institutions, and asks a direct set of questions: "Have you wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?" Or again, "Have you actually had any thoughts of killing yourself?" The subjects rank their thoughts on a five-point scale ranging from 1, the wish to die, to 5, having a plan and intent to commit suicide.

It's quick, efficient, and clear. Individuals who give high-rated answers are those who are most vulnerable and who need attention. "In the past, people would only ask about a suicide attempt," Posner has told ABC news. "You would miss the person who bought the gun yesterday or put the noose around their neck, (or the person) collecting or buying pills, writing a will or suicide note."

Thanks to the remarkable work of Dr. Posner and scientists like her, suicide is becoming less of a taboo. If depression is soon going to be one of the most debilitating illnesses in the world, as the WHO projects, we're going to have to develop reliable tools to measure it and appropriate forms of response. This project goes a way toward achieving that and toward assuring, as far as possible, the healthy and happy development of our kids. And that's something to celebrate.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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