Mitch Bolton shot himself to death in the bedroom of his Atlanta home eight years ago at age 20. He was a minstrel who wrote songs of love he couldn't sell and had a series of romances he couldn't keep.
Lynn Wrobleski seemed happily married but experienced deep depressions. At age 21, she surprised friends and family by using her neighbor's shotgun to commit suicide.
The parents of these two youths were among 650 health care professionals, researchers, government officials and concerned citizens who gathered at the Sheraton Washington and Shoreham hotels last week for the first National Conference on Youth Suicide. Sponsored by the newly established Youth Suicide National Center and the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) -- an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services -- the conference focused on the disturbing fact that, once every 90 minutes, an American youth takes his or her own life.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Americans aged 15 to 24, claiming at least 5,200 youths a year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. This figure may be low, authorities say, since suicides often masquerade as automobile accidents, drug overdoses and eating disorders.
The youth suicide rate has tripled since 1955, says CDC. White males are the group most likely to kill themselves, with boys four times more likely than girls to commit suicide. Between 1970 and 1982, the suicide rate rose 60 percent for white males between 15 and 19, by 44 percent for those 20 to 24, and by 30 percent among those 25 to 34.
This year an estimated 2 million people between the ages of 15 and 19 will attempt suicide.
"We have to rethink youth suicide," says Dr. Mark L. Rosenberg, chief of the violence epidemiology branch CDC. "We need to look at the causes, people at risk, how you identify it and strategies for prevention."
The conference probed several major questions including whether youth suicide is a fad -- or even contagious. Experts have been perplexed by the phenomenon of so-called "suicide clusters," in which one self-inflicted death triggers several others over the next few days or weeks, as has happened in Westchester, N.Y., and Plano, Tex.
"Some young people who are particularly vulnerable may identify with the suicide of another youth if portrayed dramatically as an option in the media -- on the front page of a newspaper or dramatized in a television movie," says Dr. Shervert H. Frazier, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda.
Conference participants also looked at how to identify which youths are most at risk. Very impulsive, aggressive youths seem most likely to kill themselves, suggest preliminary results of a study by Dr. David Shaffer, a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, who has studied 62 suicides in a search for patterns. Also at risk, he says, are victims of child abuse, pregnant teen-agers, people with biochemical abnormalities or severe depression, and those with a family history of suicide.
Suicide among the young often may be a snap decision, says Dr. Herbert M. Hendin, a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College. The act may be the final chapter in a long process of losing touch with feelings, leading, he says, to "numbness about life itself."
It may also be a means of control. "If someone else doesn't find a way to right something that's wrong with that person's life," he says, "then they figure it's a solution to all their problems."
"A better solution would be to find vulnerable youths early and get them into treatment," says Dr. Susan Blumenthal, director of the suicide research unit at NIMH. "The important thing is not to let disturbed thinking and a sense of hopelessness set in."
Youth suicide is receiving attention at the White House and on Capitol Hill. First Lady Nancy Reagan recorded a public service announcement telling young people, "We need you and we don't want to lose you," slated to air on 500 television stations. A seven-member interagency task force on youth suicide headed by Frazier of NIMH has been launched and is expected to complete its report in January 1987.
Meanwhile, the CDC is looking for new ways to determine how many youths take their own lives and how "clusters" fit into the suicide puzzle.
On Capitol Hill at least three pieces of legislation pertaining to youth suicide are pending. One bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), would authorize more than $18 million over three years to establish suicide prevention programs and set up a commission to generate research. Another controversial measure would let states compete for grants to develop classroom curriculums in suicide prevention.
The National Center, started with $13,000 in contributions, is hoping to raise $250,000 or more from private industry over the next six months in an effort to meet its goal of acting as a national information clearinghouse and organizing suicide prevention programs at a state and local level.