Teen Suicide: Who is Most at Risk and Why?
In the past decade, headlines reporting the tragic stories of teen suicides link the deaths to some form of bullying. Now, all 50 states have anti-bullying laws in place. This should take care of the proliferation of teen suicide, right?
Not quite - because the issue of what causes kids to decide that death is better than living is not that clear cut. The most recent research plainly shows that factors beyond bullying are strongly related to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
In fact, a complex mix of psychological, family, and environmental factors can contribute to suicidality.
Over-focus on bullying simplifies a complicated issue
It seems bullying behavior is much easier to observe and point to than say, mental health issues--like depression or low self-esteem--or environmental ones, like poor family connections, social isolation and abuse. These factors have all shown to be contributory to suicidal tendencies.
And, while certainly, a connection between bullying and suicide exists, researchers have found that when depression and delinquency are considered as factors, there’s very small difference in suicidal behaviors between kids who were involved in bullying and those who weren’t.
Nevertheless, although bullying is not the exact and sole cause of suicidal behavior, there is evidence that indicates an association between the two.
Where bullying hurts the most
Bullying - that is, unwanted, aggressive behavior which involves a real or perceived power imbalance - can be physical, verbal or online. Common thinking about bullying assumes that youth who are bullied are at greater risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. But the research actually shows that bullies themselves are at risk as well.
The analysis actually indicates that youth who experience bullying as both perpetrator and victim are at the highest risk for psychological distress.
Moreover, even kids who have only observed others being bullied - not bullies or victims themselves - report significantly more feelings of helplessness. So, although youth involved in bullying don't engage in suicide-related behaviors, it's clear that bullying involvement of any type is harmful.
A host of influences impact suicidal and bullying behaviors
Circumstances that can affect a child's vulnerability to either or both of these behaviors include:
- emotional distress
- exposure to violence
- family conflict
- relationship problems
- lack of connectedness to school/sense of supportive school environment
- alcohol and drug use
- physical disabilities/learning differences
- lack of access to resources/support
Complex problems require real solutions and that’s what experts in the field are working towards, sensational headlines aside. In a July 2018 study, the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention Center concluded that, in addition to focusing on decreasing these risk factors, communities should be looking at how to increase factors that protect teens from committing violence against others or themselves.
The study outlines three strategies for jointly tacking the issue of bullying and suicide:
- Create processes that engage students, families, and communities in academic achievement
- Provide opportunities for families to be actively involved in their children’s school life
- Provide students with the academic, emotional and social skills they need to engage in school
We are continually seeking a better understanding of the relationship between bullying and suicide-related behavior as well as other risk and protective factors that affect young people. The good news is that we have more and more actionable information to help keep our children safe from harm.
Learn more about how you can help get the word out and encourage communities, schools. teachers, and parents to take action.