A Tale of Two News Stories

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If you were in a hurry and only had time to read the first half of the #5 most e-mailed article on the New York Times website today, titled “Study Questions Effectiveness of Therapy for Suicidal Teenagers,” you probably would have come away pondering the following important points:

  1. “55 percent of suicidal teenagers had received some therapy before they thought about suicide, planned it or tried to kill themselves, contradicting the widely held belief that suicide is due in part to a lack of access to treatment.”
  2. “…[T]he new study is the first to suggest, in a large nationwide sample, that access to treatment does not make a big difference.”
  3. “The study suggests that effective treatment for severely suicidal teenagers must address not just mood disorders, but also behavior problems that can lead to impulsive acts, experts said.”

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But, if you read the first half of a Reuters article posted on the NBC News website titled, “1 in 25 U.S. teens attempts suicide, national study finds,” you probably would have come away pondering these important points:

  1. “About one in 25 U.S. teens has attempted suicide, according to a new national study, and one in eight has thought about it.”
  2. “Just over 12 percent of the youth had thought about suicide, and four percent each had made a suicide plan or attempted suicide.”
  3. “…[A]lmost all teens who thought about or attempted suicide had a mental disorder, including depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or problems with drug or alcohol abuse.”

The difference? The first story initially focuses on the fact that more than half of teens who attempt suicide had already received mental health treatment; the second story places its initial focus on facts and figures and diagnoses. Interestingly, if you continued to read both articles they wind up mirroring one another: The NY Times article ends with a discussion of the facts and figures and diagnoses, while the NBC News article ends with a discussion of the previous treatment issue.

In a continuation of the overall mirroring between articles, both include daunting quotes from mental health professionals:

NY Times: “I think one of the take-aways here is that treatment for depression may be necessary but not sufficient to prevent kids from attempting suicide,” said Dr. David Brent, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study. “We simply do not have empirically validated treatments for recurrent suicidal behavior.”

NBC News: “We know that a lot of the kids who are at risk and thinking about suicide are getting (treatment),” [researcher Matthew Nock] told Reuters Health. However, “We don’t know how to stop them – we don’t have any evidence-based treatments for suicidal behavior.”

So what is the take away from this little exercise? Both articles were written about the same research study. Yet a causal reader would have come away with different impressions depending on which article they read. An important reminder to cast a net far and wide when analyzing data, and always consult the original source when possible.

Speaking of the original source, there was an interesting finding not mentioned in either article. The study found that more than 80% of suicidal adolescents “receive some form of mental health treatment.” The 55% figure quoted in both news stories above applies only to therapy that had begun before the “onset of suicidal behaviors,” yet failed to prevent them.

Link to original JAMA article.

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