Despite all the recent attention on teen suicide, chronologically speaking it is the elderly, not teens, who lead the nation in the rate of suicide. The suicide rate for 75-to-84-year-olds is 25 per 100,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
What has alarmed experts about teen suicides has been their rocketing increase in the last three decades. The growth has been linked to such social changes as decreased family stability, a more pressured childhood and diminished prospects of matching parental status and achievements.
From 1950 to 1981, the suicide rate for young people 15 to 24 jumped from 4.5 to 12.3 per 100,000 -- a whopping 173 percent increase. There is evidence, however, that the national rate may be leveling off after reaching a peak of 13.3 in 1977. Since 1978 the rate has hovered around 12.3.
More whites commit suicide than non-whites; more males than females. While young women attempt suicide (often by pill-overdosing) three to four times more often, the death rate for young men, who often use more violent, lethal means such as guns, is more than three times as great. Virtually all the increase in the teen suicide rate over the last three decades has come from the rise in the rate among young males.
The rate tends to be higher in urban than rural areas. Transient geographic areas, many of them out West, seem to have greater numbers of teen suicides. The Washington metropolitan area was ranked 39th out of 50 in 1980 for the rate of teen suicide.
Last year, Fairfax County recorded four confirmed suicides aged 15 to 19. (The Northern Virginia planning district, of which Fairfax County is a part, had 11.) Montgomery County had 16 recorded suicides between the ages of 15 and 24, according to incomplete Maryland statistics; Prince George's County had 9. In D.C., there were two recorded teen suicides.
There appears to be a correlation between teen suicide and economic and academic success. Among teens, rates have been found higher at more prestigious schools. Many teen suicides are high achievers.
Mental health professionals say youths' impulsiveness and vulnerability put them more at risk. Teens expect fast resolutions to their problems, says Rockville psychiatric social worker Mila Kagan, and when these don't materialize, they despair. "They haven't had enough life experience to trust their own internal capacity to cope, to overcome loss. They lack the internal capacity to regulate self-esteem."
Dr. John Rogers, medical examiner for eastern Montgomery County and northern Prince George's County, also cites teen-age impatience: "Six months to a year from now, they would have laughed it the problem off. They don't have the adult capacity to rationalize things out."
Among area crisis-intervention centers trained to deal with suicide:
D.C. Crisis Center: (202) 737-CARE.
D.C. Suicide Prevention hotline: (202) 727-3622.
Montgomery County Crisis Center: (301) 656-9161. 24-hour walk-in counseling service.
Northern Virginia hotline: (703) 527-4077.
Prince George's County Crisis Center: (301) 322-2606. 24-hour emergency psychiatric service.