Half of parents don’t know their adolescent has had thoughts about suicide, and more than 75 percent of parents are unaware of their adolescent’s thoughts of death and dying. These are findings from an eye-opening study of more than 5,000 young people by researchers at the Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBI) of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the University of Pennsylvania.
The findings were published today in Pediatrics.
CHOP researchers and doctors set out to evaluate the level of agreement between parent and adolescent reports of adolescents’ suicidal thoughts and to explore factors associated with agreement. Researchers asked adolescents aged 11 to 17 and a parent if the adolescent had ever thought about killing him/herself (suicidal ideation) or often thought about death or dying (thoughts about death). In addition to parental unawareness of suicidal thoughts reported by adolescents, the researchers also identified many cases (48-67.5 percent) in which adolescents denied suicidal thoughts that their parents thought they have had.
“The discrepancy between parent and teen reports is quite alarming,” says study lead author Jason Jones, PhD, a research scientist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and faculty member of PolicyLab at CHOP. “Parental unawareness and adolescent denial of suicidal thoughts may prevent at-risk teens from receiving the mental health services they need.”
The study also found that agreement was worse for younger children. This is especially worrisome given the increasing rates of suicide in youth aged 10 to 14. Other findings included higher rates of parental unawareness and adolescent denial among racial minority families, and greater parental unawareness among fathers compared to mothers.
“Unfortunately, many adolescents in the U.S. who experience suicidal thoughts do not receive mental health services,” says co-author Rhonda Boyd, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s hospital of Philadelphia and faculty member of PolicyLab at CHOP. “Parents are usually the gatekeepers for their children’s access to healthcare, so if parents are unaware of their adolescents’ suicidal thoughts, these thoughts may go unassessed and could manifest into self-harm.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of adolescent death. Jones and Boyd stress the need for screening for suicide from multiple sources and paying attention to the factors identified in this study that may increase the risk of disagreement. The research team urged the need for continued training of pediatric primary care physicians in the evaluation and management of suicidal ideation.
Contact: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,