How Much of a Factor Is ADHD in Teen Suicide? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A clinical psychologist in Palo Alto recommends some reading on the subject:

The still unsurpassed professionally authored book about the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD is Lawrence Diller’s Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill. Diller has no ax to grind and doesn’t hesitate to prescribe stimulant medication when he believes it’s appropriate. But realizing that the “ADHD phenomenon” is extraordinarily complex, he refuses to overgeneralize, insisting that each patient is unique.

A reader in Lakewood, Colorado, shares her story:

I can’t help but share my own family experience: when our youngest daughter started to have anxiety symptoms in 8th grade, the mismanagement of her mental health crisis by the principal (interestingly enough, she was the principal of another school during a year of three suicides, and she let her own anxiety over the experience lead her response to our daughter’s problem), and how our daughter was finally diagnosed with inattentive ADHD and dyslexia.

We were so lucky that our daughter’s psychologist’s own daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager, and how she was very aware that my daughter’s struggles to get organized at school (weak executive functioning) were the root of our daughter's anxiety, and not the other way around, as the school administration insisted.

The principal labeled her as suicidal, a description that was strongly disputed by the psychologist. She told us several times to demand from the school to stop doing uninformed, and probably illegal, mental health diagnosis.

We suspected that the interest of the school for labeling our daughter as suicidal was forcing her to leave the school. Even though the principal repeatedly told us and others that she was worried our daughter was suicidal, she never contacted the district Student Services office nor followed the district protocol for at-risk students. That was the unbelievable uninformed, uncaring, and misguided way of a school to deal with a child in a mental health crisis.

The good news was that the psychologist screened our daughter and referred her to the pediatrician and Child Psychology department from a local university, where she was finally diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Since then we have had to deal with the stigma of ADHD diagnosis from some teachers and people in the community, but many others have been helpful.

About a year after diagnosis, my daughter’s anxiety is gone and she is a mature, happy, and confident teenager. Meanwhile, our school district (Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado) is dealing with its own version of Palo Alto teen suicide crisis. Besides the three suicides at Green Mountain HS in 2002-03, last year Golden High School had three suicides, and since October of this year, another two local high schools have experienced one each—the second one only this week, according to a letter sent to parents of Arvada HS students on Monday. (On their favor, I have to add that the very capable and caring professionals have increased screening and services offered to students in crisis.)

This reader flags another spate of suicides:

The Atlantic has a similar cluster right in its own backyard. Woodson High, a relatively small high school in suburban D.C., experienced six suicides in two years (and depending on who you talk to, at least two more deaths were likely suicides that the family did not want disclosed). The area demographics are similar to Palo Alto, albeit without the glamour of high tech. This is not a Silicon Valley problem by a long shot.

Do you have any notable clusters in your neck of the woods? Email us. And for more on ADHD in childhood, check out these pieces from our archive: “ADHD, or Childhood Narcissism?” and “How Childhood Trauma Could Be Mistaken for ADHD.” Update from that first reader, the clinical psychiatrist:

Dr. Diller is an interesting guy. The son of Holocaust survivors, he took the trouble to acquire professional training that was considerably broader than the training that most physicians and other health care professionals receive.

That said, he’s not a psychiatrist and has very little background in any of the other traditional professional mental health disciplines, and his book, as good as it is, doesn’t really address the extremely complicated relationship between ADHD and traditional mental health diagnoses, especially depression. However, his intelligence and curiosity and old-fashioned commitment to treating the whole person (i.e., as opposed to push-button treatment-by-diagnosis) continue to make the book, which was published in 1998, essential reading for any person, lay or professional, who wants to understand and help anyone who suffers from one or more of these conditions.