Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Report says ‘huffing’ is linked to adolescent suicide

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Stacey Freedenthal

Inhaling, or “huffing,” the vapors of common household solvents strongly correlates with suicidal thoughts and behavior among adolescents.

That’s what researchers found in a study of 723 incarcerated youth — the first work to categorize inhalant use into levels of severity and to relate this to suicidal ideas and suicide attempts in incarcerated juveniles. It is also one of the few studies to examine gender differences involved. 

“Inhalant Use and Suicidality among Incarcerated Youth,” by DU social work professors Stacey Freedenthal and Jeffrey Jenson; Michael Vaughn, University of Pittsburgh; and Matthew Howard, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; appears in the September 2007 Drug and Alcohol Dependence, an academic journal.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which awarded Howard $150,000.

The investigators found a remarkable increase in suicidal thoughts and attempts with higher levels of use of volatile solvents. In fact, the majority of those in the sample who had been serious abusers prior to incarceration reported having tried to kill themselves at some point. 

The study points out that suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents in the U.S., and that the rates of suicide attempts appear to be much higher for those who use inhalants.

The most startling numbers related to girls, revealing a history of suicide attempts among 81.3 percent of those who abused or were dependent on inhalants, with boys in the same category at 59.5 percent. 

“Girls’ problems tended to be more severe,” Freedenthal says. “However, prior research indicates that while girls attempt suicide more often than boys do, boys actually die by suicide at higher rates.” 

The study also indicates that suicidal thoughts were much higher for girls than for boys. Suicidal thoughts and attempts were considered separately because thoughts do not always lead to attempts, and attempts are not always preceded by much thought. 

The study involved 723 participants incarcerated by the Missouri Division of Youth Services, 33 percent of whom reported having inhaled volatile solvents. Twenty-five percent had attempted suicide, and 58 percent reported suicidal thoughts. Participants reported “huffing” an array of household substances — paint, paint thinner, glue, shoe polish, spot remover, floor polish, kerosene, gasoline, antifreeze, permanent markers, nail polish, nail polish remover, mothballs, waxes and lighter fluid.

In light of their findings, the researchers recommend that professionals who deal with troubled youth ask both about solvent use and suicidality when assessing patients for either, because each may be a warning sign for the other.

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