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Despite the attention given school violence and school violence reduction in recent years, relatively little attention has been paid to the problem of youth suicide during the same period of time. How bad is the problem? Consider that for U.S. children of all races, 1,883 10- to 19-year-olds died by their own hand in 2001, while in preliminary data from the 2001-02 school year, 17 students died in homicides and suicides at school. 1 Even in the last year for which complete data are available (1999-2000), 32 deaths (both homicides and suicides) occurred at U.S. schools. And the actual number of U.S. youth suicides is very likely higher, given that many experts believe some suicides are for various reasons labeled as "accidents" in death reports.

Although no one factor "causes" a person to take his or her own life, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources indicate that certain factors can be correlated with youth at considerably greater risk of attempting suicide. Among these numerous factors are:

  • Demographics: While girls are significantly more likely to report that they have seriously considered or attempted suicide, boys are much more likely to commit suicide. While the suicide rate between 1980-1995 made the greatest increases among young black males, young white and American Indian males are still much more likely to end their lives. Western states also suffer more suicides than those in the rest of the United States.
  • Drug or alcohol use: Research has suggested that youth who report using alcohol or illicit drugs are at greater risk for suicide.
  • Forms of mental illness: Depression and anxiety are substantial risk factors for suicide.
  • Sexual orientation: "Gay and lesbian youth are 200-300% more likely to attempt suicide than other young people and they may account for up to 30% of completed youth suicide annually." 2.
  • Predisposition to violence: Research highlighted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of June 11, 2004, found that both male and female students who reported attempting suicide were more liable to have been in a physical fight than students who had reported they hadn't attempted suicide.
  • Adolescence: According to a New York University brief, when children reach the age of 13 or 14, they are significantly more prone to making suicide attempts than in their preceding years. While the teenage years allow youth to find their identities, some teenagers have difficulty transitioning to this new phase and experience a sense of isolation and desperation.
  • Earlier suicide attempts: Youth who have already attempted suicide are significantly more likely than other youth to make another suicide attempt. According to research, roughly one in three teen suicide victims had made a previous suicide attempt. 3
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Family problems, loss or stressful circumstances
  • Family history of suicide. 4

What are the most effective methods of suicide prevention among children and youth?

While research suggests that the most effective method of suicide prevention is early identification and treatment of persons at risk, the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse suggested that a mere 36% of young people at risk for suicide in the prior year had received mental health treatment. The research also found that fewer than 20% of youth at risk for suicide obtained the services of a private therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or counselor.

Research likewise indicates that youth who possess "resiliency" and protective factors are less likely to think about committing suicide. In fact, some longitudinal studies propose that the power of protective factors to prevent risk behaviors such as suicide ideation is greater than the existence of risk factors. Some of these protective factors include "social problem-solving competencies" as well as "environmental characteristics such as contact with a caring adult and a school climate that promotes students' involvement, contribution and sense of connection with their school." 5 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site identifies additional protective factors: 6

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for seeking help
  • Family and community support
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
  • Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution and nonviolent handling of disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide, and support self-preservation instincts.

1Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2003, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003.

2Questions and Answers: Suicide Intervention in the Schools, National Association of School Psychologists, 2003.

3Facts for Teens: Teen Suicide, National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center.

4David A. Brent, Familial Factors in Suicide and Suicidal Behavior.

5Guidelines for School Based Suicide Prevention Programs, Prevention Division of the American Association of Suicidology, 1999.

6From The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Suicide, 1999, Department of Health and Human Services.


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