Adolescent Depressed Mood, Reports of Suicide Attempts, and Asking for Help

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Studies of normal adolescent populations indicate that many experience biological, physiological, and social changes (Conger & Peterson, 1984; Simmons, Burgenson, Carlton-Ford, & Blyth, 1987) without any major psychological or emotional problems (Petersen, Compas, Brooks-Gunn, Stemmier, Ey, & Grant, 1993). However, responses to these changes vary; many adolescents experience only mild forms of anxiety (Larson & Ham, 1993; Rutter, Graham, Chadwick, & Yule, 1976) and demonstrate adequate coping skills which enable them to address these developmental changes with minimal turmoil (Offer, 1967; Weiner, 1990). Petersen and her colleagues (1993) have defined adolescent depression at three levels: (1) depressed mood, (2) depressive syndrome, and (3) clinical depression. Depressed mood is sadness at various times in response to an unhappy situation; it is measured by self-report checklists, and is "the single most powerful symptom in differentiating clinically referred and nonreferred youth" (Achenbach, 1991). Adolescents who report both anxiety and depression along with other symptoms such as feeling sad, lonely, unloved, and worthless are considered to have depressive syndrome. Adolescents who manifest five or more depressive symptoms which impair their current functioning and last for at least two weeks are considered clinically depressed. (See Petersen et al., 1993 for a review.) Recent literature on adolescent development has emphasized the need for parents, teachers, counselors, and clinicians to pay close attention to adolescent symptomatology so that help can be offered early on, thus minimizing the chances of more serious problems, such as suicide attempts (Davis, Sandoval, & Wilson, 1988; Jones, 1990; Taylor, Miller, & Moltz, 1991).

Although studies on adolescent depression involve varying populations and measurement (Roberts, Andrews, Lewinsohn, & Hops, 1990), significant percentages of depressive symptomatology have been reported: 50% (Schoenbach, Kaplan, Grimson, & Wagner, 1982); 48% (Kashani, Beck, Hoeper, Fallahi, Corcoran, McAllister, Rosenberg, & Reid, 1987); 46% for males and 56% for females (Roberts et al., 1990); and a median of 35% across 14 studies (Petersen et al., 1993). Gender differences appear to be genuine: females have a greater tendency toward depressive and mood disorders during adolescence (Petersen, Kennedy, & Sullivan, 1991). Findings on race differences have been inconclusive (Petersen et al., 1993).

Over the past three decades the rate of suicide has increased dramatically among 15- to 24-year-olds and is the third leading cause of death in this age group (Henry, Stephenson, Hanson, & Hargett, 1993). In 1988, 2,296 adolescents committed suicide in the United States (National Center for Health Statistics, 1991). From 1960 to 1970 to 1986 the rate has continued to increase from 3.6 to 7.2 to 10.2 deaths per 100,000 (National Commission on Children, 1991). By 1988, the rate among the 15- to 24-year-olds was 13.2 per 100,000 (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1991). Considering the literature indicating adolescents' limited utilization of resources in the school (Leviton, 1977; Wells & Ritter, 1979; Hutchinson & Buttorff, 1986), the question of how adolescents are coping with their problems is raised.

This study was undertaken to investigate (1) the prevalence of depressive symptomatology among a specific adolescent population, (2) the incidence of personal problems the adolescents, their families, and closes friends had experienced in the past year, (3) how the adolescents deal with their problems, (4) their level of awareness and use of school resources for addressing personal problems, and (5) reports of attempted suicide and depressive symptomatology.



Two hundred and twenty students (over 50% of the total student population) in two midwestern parochial schools participated in the study. …


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