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Opinion: Teen suicide prevention starts with relationships

Carolina Hausmann-Stabile, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, applies sociocultural perspectives to the study of suicidal behaviors among minority youth in the United States and among adolescents in Latin America. Her scholarship is helping us to understand why adolescents attempt suicide. In this post she discusses how we can help prevent suicidal behaviors among teens. 

Suicidal behaviors during adolescence, which include ideation, planning, and attempting, are highly prevalent among teens in the United States. In 2015 the Center for Disease Control found that in the previous 12 months, 17.7 percent of high school students had ideated, 14.6 percent had planned, and 8.6 percent had attempted suicide.

Some may ask, “Why should we care?” reinforcing one of many common myths about suicide – namely, that an adolescent’s suicidal behaviors are just calls for attention. The reality could not be more different. Suicidal behaviors in adolescents signal profound distress and indicate the need to intervene. In fact, 80 percent of those who die by suicide have made at least one previous attempt. It is everyone’s responsibility to take any suicidal signals seriously.

The question, then, is “What interventions will help?” Suicidal behaviors are complex phenomena resulting from the combination of many factors, including personality, family support, life experiences, and social and cultural environment. Gender adds to the complexity. During adolescence, girls and sexual minorities report greater levels of suicidal behaviors than their male and heterosexual counterparts do. For instance, in 2015, 6.4 percent of heterosexual high school students reported a suicide attempt, while 29.4 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students did. So any answer to our question will be equally complex.

By no means do these disparities suggest that minority status predisposes teens to becoming suicidal. On the contrary, our studies suggest that it is the sociocultural factors that inform and shape their relationships that make sexual-minority teenagers vulnerable to suicidal behaviors.

If we can come up with innovative ways to teach sexual-minority teenagers to engage in healthier relationships, we may go a very long way in helping to prevent suicidal behaviors. Members of the community interested in reducing adolescent suicide should focus on developing a better society for all teens, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity.

Listen to Dr. Hausmann-Stabile on WHYY's "RadioTimes" discussing how to talk to teens about suicide. And read more about her May 12 presentation at WHYY's Behavioral Health Journalism WorkshopFind Dr. Hausmann-Stabile on Twitter @HausmannStabile.

Read related posts by Lisa Zoll, Instructor in Social Work at Temple's Harrisburg campus, and Fabienne Darling-WolfAssociate Professor of Journalism and Director of the Media and Communication Doctoral Program in the Klein College of Communication

Learn more about the School of Social Work.

Posted:  April 3, 2017