Asking high school students if they have ever tried to commit suicide or thought about it does not appear to put them at risk of doing so, according to study findings released Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Some experts have raised concerns that broaching the subject of suicide among vulnerable teens could do more harm than good, by triggering suicidal thoughts or behavior.
“Our findings can allay concerns about the potential harm of high school-based suicide screening,” write Dr. Madelyn S. Gould and her colleagues.
“On the contrary, the findings suggested that asking about suicidal ideation or behavior may have been beneficial for students with depression symptoms or previous suicide attempts,” add the researchers, who are based at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City.
Studies show that many suicidal teens are slipping through the cracks, despite the fact that at-risk teens often exhibit obvious warning signs and have treatable mental illnesses.
To investigate whether asking about suicide is distressing for teens or triggers them to think about it even more, Gould and her team surveyed 2342 high school students after they had been asked questions about depression and drug use. Half of the students also answered questions about whether they had ever thought about or attempted suicide.
Before and after the surveys, the researchers asked students if they were feeling distressed. Students were re-surveyed two days later, and all were asked about whether they had thought about suicide.
Gould and her team found that asking teens about suicide did not appear to cause them distress, and did not appear to trigger more suicidal thoughts.
Teens particularly at risk of suicide - those who used drugs, were depressed, and had tried suicide before - also appeared unaffected by questions about their history and thoughts of suicide.
In fact, teens who were depressed and had tried to kill themselves before tended to say they were less distressed and suicidal if they were asked about suicide than if those questions were removed from the survey.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, April 6, 2005.
Revision date: July 6, 2011
Last revised: by Tatiana Kuznetsova, D.M.D.