1 in 5 Calif. teens seriously consider suicide

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson calls for school to recognize risk factors of suicide in students


SACRAMENTO — One in five California high school students experience thoughts of suicide, with some schools having much higher rates of students with suicidal thoughts than others, according to a new study.

The study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, reveals that schools have different levels of student suicide ideation: rates in schools range from 4 percent to 67 percent, and researchers conclude that various school attributes are directly relevant to students’ mental health and suicide-related thoughts and behaviors.

In observance of Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month in September, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson reminded students, teachers, and staff at C.K. McClatchy High School last week to recognize the risk factors of suicide so they can help identify students who might be in crisis and need assistance.

“The suicide of a student is a terrible tragedy that devastates a family, a school, and an entire community. We must do everything we can to prevent suicide,” said Torlakson. “Every suicide threat made by a student should be taken seriously.”

Torlakson said peer-to-peer assistance programs, school mental health professionals, and trained school and district staff can reassure and support a student who might be dealing with depression, stress, anxiety, loneliness, or bullying.

The findings of the study were released in May and are the result of a secondary analysis of the California Healthy Kids Survey performed by Ron Avi Astor, the Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Rami Benbenishty (Bar Ilan University, Israel), and Ilan Roziner (Tel Aviv University, Israel). This large-scale study analyzed data on 750,000 California high school students.

The researchers found that a positive and healthy school climate may provide a sense of safety and security for students, as well as protective factors such as engagement and belongingness, which could decrease suicidal thoughts among students. Alternatively, factors such as school violence victimization, discrimination against minorities, and gang affiliation are associated with suicidal thinking among adolescents. Females and students from certain racial groups (e.g., Asian) are more likely to consider suicide.

“Schools have a major role in explaining suicide thinking among California high school students,” Benbenishty says. “The impact of school composition goes beyond the individual characteristics of its students.”

Schools with high levels of moderate and discrimination-based student victimization and a larger number of female students have more students seriously contemplating suicide. Related research also shows that the number of LGBTQ students in a school, and their level of comfort in the school environment, are associated with individual student suicide ideation.

The analysis calls for a different approach to statewide prevention and treatment for suicide ideation in California high schools and beyond.

“Traditionally, we’ve addressed adolescent suicide through a psychological lens,” Astor says. “While a mental health approach is encouraged, these data prove the need to analyze other factors that may be the root cause of suicide ideation, such as our school environments and peer group interaction.”

In June, Governor Jerry Brown set aside $1.7 million in the state budget to fund online suicide prevention training for all public middle and high school students. The training program will also address the needs of high-risk groups such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer; American Indian; and Alaskan Native youth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have increased in nearly every state from 1999–2016. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10–24.

Torlakson encouraged people in crisis to use suicide prevention services, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-272-8255, and to visit the CDE Youth Suicide Prevention web page.

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