ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) – Researchers already know that strong social connections are a key factor in determining whether a person is at risk of suicide.
A new study, published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looks specifically at the social connections between high school students and adults, and how those relationships impact the student suicide rate at their schools.
The study involved more than 10,000 students at 38 high schools, including several in western New York and the Finger Lakes. These are school districts in rural communities, they were chosen because suicide rates tend to be higher in rural parts of the country.
Students were asked to name up to seven adults at school who they trust and feel comfortable talking to about personal issues.
“We’re talking about adults conveying a sense of interest, of patience, of putting that effort into getting to know a student,” said Peter Wyman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and lead author of the study. He says there was a dramatic range of responses.
“There were schools where as few as one in 10 students were able to identify an adult that they trusted and really felt connected to,” Wyman said. “Others, more than 50 percent of students were able to do that.”
The attempted suicide rate was 20 percent higher in schools where 10 percent of students were more disconnected from adults. The rates were lower in schools where students did report those connections.
“And so that’s a school where there are probably really competent adults that are known by many students and are better prepared to respond to a student in crisis,” Wyman said.
But it was a specific kind of connection that seemed to be most beneficial: when students and their close friends all named the same adult as a trusted confidant. Wyman believes this kind of social network has a positive influence for students beyond just having adult connections in general.
“So, for example,” he explained, “if one of those students is concerned about one of their peers and says, ‘Oh, Mrs. Jones, the counselor, is somebody I trust, and I know my friend trusts that adult, too,’ it’s probably a lot easier to close that circle of connection when you have that cohesion and consistency.”
There are two ways adults can help students, according to Wyman. The first is to cultivate strong connections with students by getting to know them and taking time to listen. Second, a group of adults should know how to help a student in crisis, but that would probably be a much smaller group of teachers and administrators. He says schools need both of these.
“I don’t think we ought to be trying to prepare all adults to be doing crisis interventions with students,” he stressed. “It’s probably not realistic and it may not even be helpful.”
The authors of the study say it’s a starting point for schools and communities to be aware of the importance of intergenerational relationships and how they may help reduce vulnerability to suicide among young people.
Wyman says future research should look at how schools can develop and encourage these connections.
“There may be trainings vetted for making staff aware of this and exercises that schools and peer groups may take part in,” he explained.
Why are some schools good at forging student-adult connections, and others seem to fall short? What is it about the school climate, culture, or history, that makes a difference? Finding the answer those questions, says Wyman, is a crucial next step.
“If we’re going to reduce suicide rates we have to be thinking broadly and how can we make a bigger effect with some of these interventions,” he said.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
September 8-14 is National Suicide Prevention Week and if you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.