Research reveals social isolation boosts teen girls' suicide thoughts

January 07, 2004

CHAPEL HILL – Parents probably can get no more devastating news than that one of their children has committed suicide.Why such tragedies occur has been much studied and strongly debated, but what’s clear is that suicide among U.S. teens has risen dramatically in recent years. It now is the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults up to age 24.A new study appearing in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health underscores the importance of helping teens, especially girls, avoid feeling isolated from friends. The research is based on the largest survey of adolescents and their attitudes and experiences ever conducted in this country, a project known as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health).

“After controlling for previously identified factors affecting suicidal thoughts, we found that social networks had significant effects on those thoughts in teenage girls but not boys,” said Dr. Peter S. Bearman, professor of sociology and director of Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. “Adolescent girls who are isolated from peers or whose social relationships are troubled are at greater risk for suicidal thoughts than are girls with close relationships to other adolescents.”

Along with Dr. J Richard Udry, professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, Bearman originally designed the survey in 1993 at UNC, where formerly he was professor of sociology. Dr. James Moody, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, is co-author of the new paper, one of dozens that have resulted from the project’s massive useful data.

The new study involved analyzing information from 13,465 adolescents.

“We found that having a friend who committed suicide significantly increased the likelihood of suicidal thoughts and attempts for both boys and girls,” Bearman said. “Most importantly, socially isolated females were more likely to have suicidal thoughts, as were females whose friends were not friends with each other.”

Thinking about suicide is a warning sign, he said. Adolescents who think about it are “obviously much more likely to try it than those who do not report having such thoughts.”

Among adolescents who thought about killing themselves, attempts were largely random, however.

“This article is important because of what it did not find,” Udry said. “Bearman and Moody showed that among those who thought seriously about suicide, practically nothing predicts who will attempt suicide. This is of great concern because it gives us so little basis for preventive action.”

“Our inability to predict suicide attempts among adolescents who have considered it suggests that attempts require a constellation of opportunity factors to be realized,” Bearman said. “As a result, health-care providers, parents and teachers need to rapidly respond to all reports of adolescents thinking about suicide, not just some of them.”

Because of the importance of social networks to adolescents, getting troubled teens — girls especially — to change schools, join clubs and participate in new extracurricular activities, including activities with parents, are steps that might prevent suicidal thoughts and attempts, he said.

“If parents and others saw that a daughter was socially isolated and also thinking about suicide, they could intervene to help shape that child’s social world. Such intervention might have no effect on boys.”

Because suicide attempts are opportunistic, guns in homes pose obvious dangers for all teenagers, the social scientist said.

Strengths of the new study were its unprecedented nationally representative sample size and detailed information about friendships and social networks, Bearman said.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development was chief sponsor of the Add Health project. The Congressionally mandated effort involved asking over 100,000 seventh- through 12th-graders at 148 randomly selected U.S. middle and high schools to complete anonymous questionnaires about themselves, their health and beliefs. The study’s second phase involved detailed, in-home interviews with parents and 20,000 teenagers, whose answers were confidential.

Bearman, Udry and others reported the first findings from the project’s second phase in September 1997. Among those were that strong ties between parents and children help protect adolescents from a variety of risky behaviors, including substance abuse, early sexual activity, pregnancy, emotional distress and violence. An Add Health study published in 2000 showed that teens who took “virginity pledges” tended to postpone first intercourse significantly longer than teens who did not pledge, although “pledgers” were significantly less likely to use contraception at first intercourse than non-pledgers.

Besides the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Add Health also received support from 18 other federal agencies ranging from the National Cancer Institute and the National Science Foundation to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to his School of Public Health appointment, Udry is professor of sociology in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

 

This news release was researched and written by David Williamson of University of News Services.

Note: Bearman can be reached at (212) 854-3094, e-mail: psb17@columbia.edu. Udry can be reached at (919) 966-2829, e-mail: udry@unc.edu.

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596 or david_williamson@unc.edu