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Clinical and Research News
Teens Thinking Less of Suicide Yet Continue to Engage in Risky Behavior
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 15 page 17-17

While suicidal ideation in young people has decreased over the past decade, they are jeopardizing their lives by engaging in other types of reckless behavior, according to the 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System report, released in late June.

The study, conducted by researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals trends in the extent to which high school students engage in risky behaviors. The study, which the CDC has conducted every other year since 1991, measures how often teens considered or planned to commit suicide, used drugs and alcohol, fought with peers, carried weapons, and engaged in sexual intercourse, among other behaviors.

The CDC report concluded that "too many high school students nationwide continue to practice behaviors that place them at risk for serious acute and chronic health problems."

In 2001 researchers received 13,601 completed surveys from high school students in 150 randomly selected schools across the nation. The data are representative of all high school students nationwide.

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While fewer teens are contemplating suicide compared with a decade ago, the percentage is still quite high at 19%. In addition, more teens are engaging in behaviors that are harmful to their health.

One piece of good news that emerged is that teens are thinking about and planning suicide less frequently than they were a decade ago. The percentage of teens who seriously considered suicide dropped 10 percent since 1991—from 29 percent to 19 percent in 2001.

About 19 percent of teens actually planned to attempt suicide a decade ago, and this figure dropped slightly to 15 percent last year.

In addition, the number of teens who carried a weapon (defined as a gun, knife, or club) dropped from 26 percent in 1991 to 17 percent in 2001. While 43 percent of high school students engaged in physical fights in 1991, 10 percent fewer students did so in 2001.

Risky sexual behavior is also on the decline. The percentage of students who ever had sexual intercourse decreased from 54 percent to 46 percent in the past decade, and the percentage of those who had four or more sexual partners decreased from 19 percent to 14 percent of the sample at large.

The study also tracked drug use over the past decade. Researchers found that usage rates of certain drugs have fluctuated. For instance, the percentage of teens who used marijuana at least once in the preceding month rose from 15 percent to 26 percent from 1991 to 1997, and then dropped slightly to 24 percent by 2001. Cocaine use rose from 5.9 percent in 1991 to a little over 9 percent in 2001.

Researchers also ascertained the percentage of teens who used inhalants (15 percent), heroin (3 percent), methamphetamines (10 percent), and steroids (5 percent) but had no comparison data from 1991 since survey questions about these drugs were not asked then.

The percentage of students who had five or more alcoholic drinks within a couple of hours on one or more occasion during the past month has remained constant between 1991 (29 percent) and 2001 (30 percent).

The data from the bienniel survey is used by legislators and policymakers to improve policies and programs that reduce health risk behaviors in teens. The data are also used to measure progress in achieving the national health objectives set by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2000 in its Healthy People 2010 prevention agenda (Psychiatric News, January 1, 1999). The agenda lists 467 national health-related objectives to lengthen the lives of Americans and improve their quality of life.

Some of the objectives address reducing drug abuse, physical fighting, and the carrying of weapons by adolescents, for instance.

The results of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey are posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site at www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dash/yrbs/info_results.htm.

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While fewer teens are contemplating suicide compared with a decade ago, the percentage is still quite high at 19%. In addition, more teens are engaging in behaviors that are harmful to their health.

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