Reports have surfaced that Charles Bishop, the 15-year-old who flew a small plane into a Florida skyscraper last week, may have been taking the acne medication Accutane and that this might have accounted for his suicide. Such speculation stems from the 37 suicides and 110 suicide attempts among users of the medication since its introduction in 1982.
Whatever plausibility such a conjecture might have, however, is diminished by other numbers.
It's estimated that 500,000 Americans, mostly teenagers, take Accutane annually so something on the order of 10 million have taken it since its debut. The number of different people who have taken the medication is no doubt considerably lower since some take it for more than a year and are thus counted among the 500,000 in more than one year.
So let's cut the 10 million figure by more than two-thirds and estimate that 3 million different people have taken Accutane since 1982. If roughly 150 of them either committed or attempted suicide, we determine that approximately one in 20,000 committed or attempted suicide.
But the overall suicide rate (successes, not just attempts) for teenagers is approximately 10 per 100,000 or one in 10,000. This is much higher than the rate among Accutane users! If we were to draw any top-of-our-head inference from the figures, it would be that Accutane has a prophylactic effect and lessens the risk of suicide, not that it causes it.
If Accutane is associated with a reduced risk of suicide, it may be because untreated acne itself sometimes leads to suicide. Or it may be because teenagers who care about their appearance are less likely to attempt suicide.
In any case, even a superficial look at the numbers involved strongly suggests that Charles Bishop's demons came from elsewhere and were more than skin deep.
Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears every month.