Suicide becomes an American epidemic - The Buffalo News

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Suicide becomes an American epidemic

I was shocked recently when I heard on National Public Radio that 5,000 vets a month commit suicide.

Doing some multiplication, 5,000 per month means that in one year as many vets kill themselves as were killed in the Vietnam War. So what are we doing for this epidemic? Not much. And who’s responsibility is it? Perhaps the answer is that we are responsible. All of us. The VA report looked at “known” suicides by veterans from 1999 to 2010. The older a vet was, the more likely to commit suicide. But nearly one in three suicides were by vets younger than 50, in the prime of their lives.

Active-duty military are not immune. Last year they hit a record high of 350 known suicides. That translates to more suicides last year than deaths in Afghanistan. And because suicide often carries a stigma, not all are reported.

Suicide is an American epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides are rising – up to 38,000 last year. That’s more than deaths from motor vehicle accidents. It’s a whopping statistic if ever there was one.

Back to the vets. What shall we do to support the men and women who have risked their lives for us? I suggest that anyone who knows a vet who might be in trouble should take action. Where to start? How about asking them how they’re doing? How about telling them you can help? Are they having a rough time? Sometimes it’s like my mom always said, “A touch of kindness goes a long way.”

(Those concerned about a loved one’s behavior are encouraged to call the Erie County Crisis Services 24-hour hotline at 834-3131.)

Dear Dr. Z: Recently, my 16-year-old son was diagnosed with depression. His pediatrician said he would benefit from an antidepressant, but I’m concerned. I’ve read about the side effects in teens. I’ve heard about the FDA warning that they might lead to suicide. What to do?

– Worried mom

Dear Worried Mom: You are right to be worried. Depression is common in teens. Any parent who has a depressed child worries about suicide, with good reason.

Nearly a decade ago, the FDA issued a “black-box warning,” their highest warning, that antidepressants in teens might lead to suicide. The result was that many doctors, from primary care physicians to doctors of psychiatry, stopped using them.

According to a recent provocative Harvard study, we now have more teen deaths than ever, perhaps because we’re underutilizing antidepressants.

The medical community has been cautious. Some say, yes, we need to treat more kids, while others say no. Parents say, “How do I decide?”

My spin: Teen depression needs a two-fold treatment. Every depressed teen needs counseling. And many teens also need antidepressants as long as they’re closely monitored, especially for the first month of treatment. Treatment is a team decision, involving the doctor, the therapist, the parent and, last but most important of all, the teen.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7; email him at

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