After questioning 1,232 middle schoolers in California, researchers found the kids who reported suicidal feelings also reported more drug use and law-breaking activity.
"There was such a strong linkage that kids who were delinquent were also depressed and considering suicide," says lead author Charles G. Go, who presented the findings recently at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco. "It goes hand in hand."In the survey, researchers went to three middle schools in the Oakland area. After questioning the teens about their feelings toward their community, parental involvement and peer support, they were asked about self-esteem, delinquency, depression and suicidal behavior.
In response, 21 percent of the students said they had contemplated suicide, and 6 percent of that group said they had made suicide attempts serious enough to warrant medical attention. The 256 students who thought about suicide also reported the most delinquency, drug use and arrests. Those who tried to kill themselves also reported the least amount of connection to their community and least supervision from their parents.
Most of the youths questioned were under the age of 15, with 57 percent girls and 43 percent boys. As for race, 35 percent were black, 31 percent Hispanic, 16 percent were of a mixed race and 13 percent were Asian. The rest were white.
Go notes that many researchers believe low socioeconomic status plays the strongest role in delinquent behavior and teen depression, but his study found something else was more important. Lack of a sense of belonging -- to the community, the school and the home -- hurt the student's mental and emotional state the most, the study reports.
"They're not finding that place, that connection," explains Go, youth development adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension Service.
Other teen suicide experts were not surprised by the findings, and they add that solutions are hard to come by.
"We have extensive research that links teen suicide to conduct disorder," says Alan L. Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "We know well the relationship between conduct and anti-social behavior and suicide risk."
Peter L. Sheras, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, explains it this way: "In many cases, people who are suicidal have less concern about their own well-being. They're less likely to act in accordance with any laws, legal or societal."
As a matter of fact, these kids tend to remove themselves from society altogether, says child psychologist Steven H. Klee.
"The issue with the treatment for suicide, some of the difficulty, is the gradual, sometimes not so gradual, withdrawal from social networks," Klee says. "It's hard finding these isolated kids. Very rarely will teens seek help themselves. Teen-agers in general aren't big on seeking out mental health services."
Berman notes that not all delinquent kids are suicidal, so the trick is finding who's at risk within this at-risk group. Outreach programs are a start, and referral services can help kids get the right kind of help, he says.
And parents can make a difference, too. If you notice changes in your child's behavior, particularly ones that point to withdrawal, pay attention to them and pull them back, Klee says.
"I think the best intervention is that you don't let them slip away," he says.
"Kids are plugged into so many things besides their parents," explains Go, who points out the media and the Internet have become a huge part of teens' lives. "We're not spending as much quality time with our kids. We need to preserve that. Talking with our kids fosters a sense of belonging."
Adds Sheras: "I think, as adults, we've become very impatient with kids. We've given them adult things to do without giving them adult coping skills. We think they can just handle it, and we get angry when they don't."
"We're missing a developmental point," he says. "These kids aren't ready to take what's available to them."
What To Do
For links to sites on kids behaving badly -- and how the criminal justice system reacts -- go to the Web site of the Florida State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.