High schools where students are more connected to peers and where several students share strong relationships with the same adults, have lower rates of suicide attempts, according to a new study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
“Most suicide prevention is centered on the high-risk individual,” said lead author Peter A. Wyman, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “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.”
The study surveyed 10,291 students from 38 high schools to determine social integration through the relationship network structure of each school.
Students were asked to name up to seven of their closest friends and up to seven adults in their school they trust and feel comfortable talking to about personal matters. Researchers used the friendship and adult nominations to develop a social network model for each school.
Researchers from the University of Rochester used this data to determine whether differences in social networks between schools resulted in different rates of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide).
They found that rates of suicide attempts and ideation were higher in schools where students named fewer friends, when friendship nominations were concentrated in fewer students, and when students’ friends were less often friends with each other.
In addition, suicide attempts specifically were higher in schools where students were more isolated from adults, and when student nominations of adults were concentrated among fewer students (i.e. a few students had disproportionately more trusted adults vs. other students).
In particular, schools in which 10 percent more students were isolated from adults correlated to a 20 percent increase in suicide attempts. Conversely, suicide attempts were lower in schools where students and their close friends shared strong bonds with the same adult, and where a smaller number of adults were nominated by a larger share of students.
Schools in which many students name the same trusted adults “may reflect the presence of clearly identified, competent adults being connected to many students,” said the study.
This focus on social networks had been relatively unexplored in previous research on suicide, said Wyman. He hopes these study results could potentially help schools develop more effective, comprehensive interventions.
“One of the most important predictors of lower suicide attempt rates in this study was positive youth-adult connections widely spread across the school,” said Wyman, “we have to be thinking about the broader population to make sure more students are connected to adults prepared to support them.”
Participating schools had wide differences in the percentage of students who nominated trusted adults. In the lowest ranked school, only 8.3 percent of students named a trusted adult, while 53.4 percent of students named a trusted adult in the highest ranked school.
Authors of the study recommended looking at school staff characteristics, such as diversity and attitudes about youth, and the school leadership climate to better understand why these differences exist.
In addition, the study recommended developing strategies to strengthen protective social networks, including training student peer group leaders to promote positive social behaviors, and working to prepare responsive adults and connect those adults into student social groups.
“The time has come for our field to think more broadly about suicide prevention,” said Anthony R. Pisani, PhD, associate professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.
“Individual risk factors, like depression, substance use or traumatic history, are important, but we also need to think about the health of the social ties and systems in which we are all interwoven.”