While a tragedy, teen suicide rarely makes the news. It is most often experienced privately by families and friends who may struggle for years with grief and unanswered questions, including the inevitable, “Why?”
Although they may never know the exact answer, a number of risk factors have been proven to increase a young person’s likelihood of suicide.
Three of these factors — bullying, drug use and risky sexual behavior — were the focus of a study by Erick Messias, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the Walker Family Clinic at the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute.
By analyzing Arkansas-specific data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Messias determined that these three risk factors have a direct correlation with suicidal tendencies in teenagers across the state.
We have a lot of work to do to prevent tragedies after children are cyber bullied.Erick Messias, M.D., Ph.D.
“We should not accept that bullying, drug use and risky sexual behavior are part of a normal, healthy teen experience. In fact, they have very negative outcomes,” said Messias, who also holds a master’s degree in public health and is trained as an epidemiologist.
The data Messias analyzed was collected in 2011 from about 4,000 Arkansas public high school students as part of the CDC’s national Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Studying the Arkansas-specific numbers is important in understanding what is happening close to home, Messias said, as opposed to depending only on nationwide statistics.
Messias found that students who reported being bullied at school had an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, while those who were bullied online had an even greater risk. When bullied in both arenas, the risk increased even more.
“Because this is a new phenomenon, we aren’t knowledgeable enough about cyber bullying, we aren’t fully prepared for it and we don’t have much experience addressing it. We have a lot of work to do to prevent tragedies after children are cyber bullied,” he said.
The second set of risk factors Messias examined included risky sexual behaviors, specifically focusing on children who engaged in sexual activity before age 13 and those who had multiple partners. Both of these behaviors, he said, were accompanied by an increased risk of sadness and suicide attempts.
One of the most surprising findings for Messias centered on the fact that 10 percent of Arkansas students reported being forced to have sex. This finding is 2 percent higher than the national average.
“We need to understand that forced sex is happening and is clearly the strongest predictor of suicidal behavior among teens,” he said, adding that teens who reported being forced to have sex were 3.5 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.
The final factor Messias examined was one widely known to play a part in suicides: drug use. In the CDC’s survey, one third of Arkansas teens reported having used cannabis at least once, and more than 10 percent admitted to using inhalants or abusing prescription drugs. “All of these increase your risk for suicide and depression,” he said.
Messias plans to use his findings to further examine if there are geographic areas or demographic groups in the state that most often display these risk factors. Then, education programs, particularly for parents and teachers, can be developed to recognize, address and prevent these risky behaviors.
“I know we can’t prevent every bad outcome. But we can work to prevent most of them,” he said.