In fact, the study found that simply asking troubled students about any suicidal impulses appears to ease their distress and might make some of them less likely to try killing themselves.
The results confirm what many mental health experts already believe and should alleviate fears among some parents and schools that just mentioning suicide might plant the idea in teens' minds, said study author Madelyn Gould, a researcher at Columbia University and New York Psychiatric Institute.
National data suggest that each year more than 3 million youngsters ages 15 to 19 think seriously about committing suicide. About 1.7 million try it, with more than half of the attempts requiring medical attention. About 1,600 succeed.
"Without asking a kid directly, it's sometimes hard to pick up," Gould said.
Her study involved 2,342 students at six suburban New York high schools who answered two mental health questionnaires two days apart. Half the students — the experimental group — also received about 20 suicide-related questions on both surveys. The questions included whether they had considered suicide and whether they thought it would be better if they were dead. The other half got suicide-related questions only on the second survey.
The groups' scores on emotional distress measures were similar before and after the first survey. And roughly 4 percent in both groups said they had had suicidal ideas since the first survey.
Among teens with previous suicide attempts, the experimental group had slightly fewer suicidal ideas than the comparison group after the first survey. Among depressed teens, the experimental group had slightly less emotional distress than the comparison group after the first survey.
Those results bolster the idea that asking troubled teens about suicide gives them a chance to "unburden themselves," while not asking may signal "that you don't care," said Lenny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.
The study appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
The notion that asking teens about suicide might be harmful stems from "the centuries-long history of suicide being stigmatized" as something to be avoided, Berman said. "It comes from people who are anxious about even using the word."
Hundreds of U.S. schools have used suicide screening, "but there is a lot of resistance," Gould said. She said some school officials are worried about being blamed if students harm themselves after taking a survey.
Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the group generally supports suicide screening in schools, particularly if professionals are brought in to conduct the surveys.
"Too often, the resources aren't there," he said.
Dr. David Fassler, a Burlington, Vt., child psychiatrist, said that when it comes to teen suicide, "we need to do a better job of identifying these kids as early as possible."
By Lindsey Tanner