GAINESVILLE---In a study of almost 15,000 teens, a University of Florida researcher has found that community involvement plays an important role in preventing suicide.
"Until now, we had never taken a community-based look at suicide," said Daniel Perkins, a researcher in UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "Previously, we had only used data collected from clinics or gathered on a post-mortem basis. Few studies have assessed risk factors related to suicidal behaviors among a 'normal,' or community, sample of adolescents.
"So this is a different way of looking at suicide."
Adolescence is a time fraught with danger for teens, Perkins said. Accidents and violence are the top two causes of death for adolescents, but suicide is a close third. The teen suicide rate, in fact, has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, according to national studies.
Perkins' study involved 14,922 Michigan youths, ages 12 to 17, who anonymously answered a 152-item survey, The Search Institute's Profiles on Student Life: Attitude and Behavior Questionnaire. For purposes of his study, Perkins used 15 categories of information from the questionnaire to assess the group's thoughts about suicide. Michigan students were used because of the widespread access to schools there.
Risk factors that showed up on the survey and that were measured by Perkins were divided into three categories: individual, family and outside the family.
On the individual level, the risk factors that were measured were religious feelings, physical and sexual abuse, hopelessness, and use of alcohol, marijuana and hard drugs. On the family level, the measured factors were family support, parental addictions and parental monitoring.
Interesting to Perkins, though, was that one factor outside the family played a large role: school climate.
"Teen-agers spend a lot of time in schools, and schools are a place where kids become engaged," Perkins said. "Sometimes we find kids who are doing well in difficult situations are drawing something positive from the environment, such as the school environment. If school engages them, they are at less risk."
Perkins said school-improvement initiatives, such as decreasing class size and enhancing after-school activities, help schools keep teen-agers involved. School and club activities are important in helping teens develop self esteem and in giving them opportunities to learn social and other skills.
"Unfortunately, parental involvement in schools drops during adolescence," Perkins said, "when in reality, kids really need their parents in their lives."
Perkins said adolescence is a time of great transition and formation of identity. Weathering this transition and becoming a healthy young adult requires a sense of future, which families and schools develop, he said.
"The interesting thing about the research is that it shows there are multiple factors, not just one," Perkins said. "Previously, we didn't know the importance that school had. We often thought of suicide only in terms of the role of the family. Now we know we need to look at the school community, too, to find all the factors.
"Kids need a role in society, a place in society," Perkins said.
In the study, Perkins found that girls were more likely to have suicidal thoughts than boys, with 14.1 percent of the girls reporting suicidal thoughts vs. 9.1 percent of boys.
School climate was found to be a significant predictor of suicidal thoughts for boys but not for girls. But, Perkins said, while girls' thoughts of suicide were not related to school, whether they attempted suicide was, in fact, related to the lack of a positive school climate.
The study showed that alcohol use is a stronger predictor of suicidal thoughts for girls than boys. Perkins said alcohol use is more common for boys, so if girls are using alcohol it is a warning sign that something has gone wrong in their lives.
"For too long, we've blamed the victim or the parents," Perkins said. "One of the strong points of this research is the ability to look beyond the individual.
"The individual brings something, the family brings something," Perkins said. "But so does the environment: schools, neighborhoods and the larger society."