Public Release: 

Suicide risk increases in teens who knew murder victims

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 13, 2018 - Nearly half of black teenagers surveyed in Allegheny County report losing a friend or family member to murder, a disproportionately stark statistic that is associated with suicide attempts and other negative childhood experiences, according to research led by UPMC and University of Pittsburgh scientists.

The findings are presented today at the American Public Health Association's 2018 Annual Meeting & Expo in San Diego. "Health Equity Now" is the theme of this year's meeting.

"Our analysis is a call to action for both practitioners and researchers to engage in work related to homicide survivorship," said Patricia Murungi Bamwine, Ph.D., M.A., M.S.W., postdoctoral scholar at Pitt's School of Medicine and UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "This work highlights that violence prevention and youth development cannot solely focus on reducing homicide. We also must focus on the ripple effects of traumatic loss on not only young people, but communities as a whole."

While Bamwine was serving as an AmeriCorps member at the Braddock Youth Project, a youth-driven employment program south of Pittsburgh, a young man was shot and killed a few blocks away. Following the murder, she observed behavioral changes in the youth she was working with. The experience led her to shift her research focus from East African conflict and terrorism to community violence intervention and prevention in America.

Motivated by her experience, Bamwine and her team, which included researchers at Pitt's School of Social Work, analyzed the results of a 2014 survey of 1,609 youth ages 14 through 19 in Allegheny County, called The Healthy Allegheny Teen Survey. Of all the participants, 13 percent reported losing a friend or family member to murder. But black youth were disproportionately affected - despite comprising 15 percent of the participants, they accounted for 46 percent of homicide survivors.

After adjusting for demographics, participants whose loved ones were victims of homicide had twice the odds of considering the idea of suicide when compared to those who did not lose a friend or family member to homicide. Of those who reported suicidal ideation, the teens whose family or friends were murdered had nearly three-fold higher odds of actually attempting suicide.

"Traumatic loss is one of the greatest barriers for youth to thrive," said Bamwine. "Not only are young people who live in oppressed neighborhoods exposed to disproportionate rates of violence, but they also must wrestle with questions related to death, life, hope and healing. I believe that youth are agents of change, and my ultimate mission is to help young people turn their pain into action by creating spaces for youth to both process and support others that are grieving."

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Additional authors on this research are Jaime Booth, Ph.D., John Wallace, Ph.D., Kelley Jones, Ph.D., M.P.H., Carla Chugani, Ph.D., L.P.C., Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., and Alison Culyba, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., all of Pitt.

The Healthy Allegheny Teen Survey was supported with funds from The Heinz Endowments, Grable Foundation, FISA Foundation and Hillman Foundation.

About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

As one of the nation's leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1998. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support.

Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region's economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see http://www.medschool.pitt.edu.

About UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh

Regionally, nationally, and globally, UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh is a leader in the treatment of childhood conditions and diseases, a pioneer in the development of new and improved therapies, and a top educator of the next generation of pediatricians and pediatric subspecialists. With generous community support, UPMC Children's Hospital has fulfilled this mission since its founding in 1890. UPMC Children's is recognized consistently for its clinical, research, educational, and advocacy-related accomplishments, including ranking 13th among children's hospitals and schools of medicine in funding for pediatric research provided by the National Institutes of Health (FY2017).

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Contact: Allison Hydzik
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