High School Students are Less Likely to Attempt Suicide if They Trust Adults, Study Says

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New research about rural high school students found that suicide prevention should involve fostering strong connections to adult staff members.

Suicide rates are lower in high schools where students have strong connections to their friends and to adult staff, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Rochester.

Those results, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, could be used to bolster the effectiveness of suicide prevention initiatives in schools, said Peter Wyman, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and the study’s lead author.

“Most suicide prevention is centered on the high-risk individual,” Wyman said in a statement. “We wanted this study to provide us with new ways of thinking on how to intervene to strengthen protective relationships on a broader school level, and even on a community level.”

Wyman and a team of researchers surveyed 10,291 students from 38 high schools in rural areas, chosen specifically because suicide rates tend to be higher in more sparsely populated areas. Students were asked to name up to seven of their closest friends and, notably, up to seven adults at their school that they trusted and felt comfortable talking to about personal topics. 

“To our knowledge, this is the first study of any adolescent health problem, including suicidal behavior, that integrates adult connections into friendship networks at a school population level,” researchers wrote.

Researchers used the survey results to construct social networks for each school (examining, for example, the percentage of students who feel isolated as well as the overall relationship patterns across all social groups). The study then compared the social networks between schools to see if their differences correlated with differing rates of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide).

The results showed that rates of both suicide attempts and suicide ideation were higher in schools where students named fewer friends, where social networks were comprised of fewer students, and where students’ friends were less often friends with each other. Suicide attempts were higher in schools where students were more isolated from adults and where smaller numbers of students had disproportionately more trusted adults in their lives than other students.

Conversely, the study noted, suicide attempts were less frequent in schools where students and their close friends shared a strong bond with the same adult, and in schools where a smaller number of adults were named as “trusted” by larger numbers of students. That dynamic “may reflect the presence of clearly identified, competent adults being connected to many students.”

That type of relationship between students and trusted adults “may promote more help-seeking for students and for their friends,” but results varied widely from school to school—from a low of 8.3% of students naming a trusted adult to a high of 53.4%. 

The study’s authors recommended further research to explain those disparities, starting with a look at the characteristics of each school’s staff members (things like diversity and the general leadership climate). The study also recommended that schools work to strengthen their social networks, potentially by identifying adults who are already well-trusted by students and training them to intervene in a crisis. Schools would also benefit by simply training adult staff members to get to know, and listen to, their students.

“One of the most important predictors of lower suicide attempt rates in this study was positive youth-adult connections widely spread across the school,” Wyman said. “We have to be thinking about the broader population to make sure more students are connected to adults prepared to support them.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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