LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being released this morning, gives a grim picture of suicides in the United States. It shows no letup in a steady rise in suicides over the last 15 years. And there's a disturbing increase among young girls. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports.
RAE BICHELL, BYLINE: Sally Curtin is one of the authors of the CDC report. She's a statistician of the National Center for Health Statistics. She says it's heartbreaking to work with these data because while other causes of death are decreasing, suicide just keeps climbing.
SALLY CURTIN: Oh, my gosh. I've been losing sleep over this, quite honestly. You know, you can't just say it's confined to one age group or another for males and females, that truly, at all ages, people are at risk for this. And, you know, our youngest have some of the highest percent increases.
BICHELL: Curtin says one group really stands out - girls between ages of 10 and 14. Though they make up a very small portion of the total number of suicides, the death rate has tripled in the past 15 years. And that doesn't begin to account for all the attempts, she says.
CURTIN: You know, the attempts so outnumber the deaths. The deaths are but the the tip of the iceberg.
BICHELL: Back in the late 1980s, when the suicide rate was still declining, things were looking up because of a new class of antidepressants.
MARIE OQUENDO: We saw this very encouraging decrease in the rates of suicide deaths that's really, very remarkable.
BICHELL: That's Dr. Maria Oquendo. She's president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association
OQUENDO: And somehow, that trend abruptly stopped in 1999.
BICHELL: The overall rate of suicides started going up 1 percent a year. In 2006, it started going up by 2 percent a year. Some people blame that on a souring economy, among other factors.
OQUENDO: Now, the other thing that we were anticipating with some dread was the aftermath of the black-box on antidepressants.
BICHELL: Oquendo is talking about a warning label that the FDA required go on antidepressants starting in 2004. It says that in people under 26, the medications can actually increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions. She says that warning might have scared doctors away from prescribing antidepressants.
OQUENDO: And some of the increment in suicide deaths in the younger populations is potentially linked to a reluctance - understandable reluctance - by physicians who see these youngsters to prescribe antidepressants
BICHELL: But why such a sharp rise in 10- to 14-year-old girls? That's a particularly murky area of research, says Arielle Sheftall.
ARIELLE SHEFTALL: We don't know what's going on, to be quite honest.
BICHELL: Sheftall works at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. One hypothesis for what's going on is earlier puberty.
SHEFTALL: We have seen that there has been this decrease in pubertal onset in females.
BICHELL: Girls are hitting puberty around 11, though some start their periods earlier. Boys tend to hit puberty around age 13.
SHEFTALL: Research has shown that puberty, unfortunately, is associated with the onset of psychological disorders, specifically depression.
BICHELL: And depression is a big risk factor for suicidal thoughts and actions. So because of the shifting puberty age, the door to anxiety, depression and other psychiatric disorders might be opening earlier in life for young girls.
SHEFTALL: Nobody wants to believe it. I understand that completely. Nobody wants to believe that little kids want to kill themselves. But it's happening. And we need to take it very seriously when kids are disclosing to us these feelings of suicide. And we need to get them help that they need.
BICHELL: Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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