Too young to die

March 31, 2008 8:52:19 AM PDT
The number of teenagers committing suicide has increased at an alarming rate.Some experts blame a black-box warning by the FDA. Could a warning intended to save lives have the opposite effect?

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

In 2004, the FDA placed a black-box warning on anti-depressants, indicating to patients that the drugs could cause suicidal thoughts in adolescents. Some experts now believe that warning has had unintended consequences, resulting in the biggest spike in suicide rates in 15 years.

"I always ask myself why...why, why, why did this happen?" said Kathleen McManus, whose daughter, Megan, died.

McManus says she will always wonder if taking her daughter off anti-depressants was a deadly decision.

"I do really regret it, and I wish that she was still on it," the mother said.

To the outside world, Megan was beautiful and popular. But inside, she was battling clinical depression that first surfaced when she was age 13. Megan was put on the anti-depressant Zoloft, but she was taken off the drug when the FDA put 'black box' warnings, its highest warning, on antidepressants for pediatric use in 2004.

"It wasn't worth taking that risk, that she would commit suicide or have suicidal thoughts," Kathleen McManus said.

But that is exactly what happened. It started when Megan's close friend, Maribel, took her life, inspiring Megan to create a Web site called 'Students Overcoming Suicide.'

It became Megan's mission to save lives, but in 2007, her depression returned. After a suicide attempt, she was placed back on anti-depressants. But, Megan's mother says, there was not enough time for the drugs to work. In July 2007, just after graduating from Palatine High School, Megan ended it all by hanging herself.

"The pain that Megan felt was so unbelievable that she didn't see anyway out," Kathleen McManus said.

The Centers for Disease Control reports the suicide rate spiked for teens between 2003 and 2004. There was a 9-percent increase in 15 to 19-year-old boys and a 32-percent increase in 15 to 19-year-old girls. For girls, ages 10 to 14, there was a 75.9-percent increase.

"I think it should be extremely alarming," said Dr. Robert Gibbons, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Gibbons also says parents and doctors have been scared off by the warning. Prescriptions for anti-depressants for teens dropped 22 percent the year after the warning was issued and have continued to drop ever since.

"I'm concerned that the unintended consequence of the black box warning was to decrease the availability of treatment to seriously depressed children and has, consequently, increased the rate at which children taken their lives," Gibbons said.

Ken Meyer formed 'Elyssa's Mission' three years ago after his niece, Elyssa Meyers, a sophomore at New Trier High School, took her life.

"She committed suicide by hanging herself," Ken Meyers told ABC7 Chicago.

Since then, Meyers has brought his message of suicide prevention to 10,000 students in the Chicago area so far.

Many school districts have shied away from the topic, but Meyers is proud his group is helping to change that stigma and helping to save young lives.

"You're arming kids with information so that they can make wise decisions not to do it," he said. "We're having an impact, we're saving lives."

'Elyssa's Mission' partners with school districts to return year after year and also includes parents in the process.

This report is part of a year-long series ABC7 Chicago is doing on suicide and suicide prevention as part of a fellowship with the Carter Center in Atlanta. Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter is a long-time advocate for mental health issues.


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