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Social Network Key to Teen Suicide Risk

Girls with few friends likelier to consider it

MONDAY, Jan. 12, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- When it comes to preventing teen suicide, understanding the social world of adolescent girls may provide a key to predicting potential risk, says a new study.

Researchers found girls were twice as likely to think about suicide if they had few friends. The risk of suicide attempts also rose among girls whose social life was fragmented among different groups of friends.

While one suicide expert says the research offers nothing new, study co-author Peter Bearman contends the findings should help guide communities as they try to prevent suicide. For teens, especially girls, "what is important is having social identity, friendships and feeling integrated," says Bearman, a professor of sociology at Columbia University.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among children aged 10 to 14 in the United States, and continues to be a major killer among young and middle-aged people, according to 2001 federal statistics.

In the new study, researchers looked at 13,565 students in grades 7 to 12 who answered federal questionnaires in 1994 and 1995. The researchers report their findings in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Teens were 1.4 to 2.7 times more likely to think about suicide if someone they knew -- a family member or friend -- had killed himself or herself. Students of both genders were about 1.5 times more likely to think about suicide if they acknowledged homosexual feelings, and girls were nearly twice as likely to consider killing themselves if they'd been sexually assaulted.

The likelihood of considering suicide doubled among girls who had few friends. They were also more likely to be at risk if their friends were not friends with each other, Bearman says.

But the risk of suicidal thoughts actually dropped among boys with few friends. The researchers wrote that adolescent boys are "more impervious" to their social worlds than girls.

The study points to a link between social lives and mental health, Bearman says, adding it reveals how difficult it is to predict which suicidal students will move from thoughts to action.

However, one suicide expert is skeptical about whether the findings shed any new light on teen suicide. Researchers already knew that teens are prone to imitate each other and at higher risk if their friends committed suicide, says Daniel Romer, a suicide expert and research director for the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication.

"The findings about the social networks of suicidal youth are interesting, but we really don't know what they mean," says Romer. "Measuring a person's social network characteristics is very hard, and the study really does not take us much further along [beyond] what we knew already."

More information

Get details about the warning signs of teen suicide from the American Academy of Pediatrics. You can also try the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

SOURCES: Peter Bearman, Ph.D., professor and chairman, Department of Sociology, Columbia University, New York City; Daniel Romer, Ph.D., research director, Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; January 2004 American Journal of Public Health
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