High School and Teen Suicide, A Connection?
Do you remember your High School years? Weren't they filled with the joy of learning, socializing with lots of friends, competing in team sports and thorougly enjoying all the benefits of adolescence?
This ideal scenario may have been true for some people who had positive High School experiences. Of course, the benefit of time and distance can put a shine on things that may have been less than ideal. As we grow older, there is a tendency to have a romantic view of the days when we were young.
However, for most of us, the reality of those adolescent school years ranged from uneventful all the way to awful and even traumatizing. In fact, it is likely that you went to school with students who were killed in auto accidents, were victims of crimes, or who committed suicide.
Over the past fifty years the length of the school year has increased. In many districts, the academic year begins in August and ends at the end of May. The reasons for this are many. For example, the decline in student performance in math, science and reading skills has alarmed the public. The fact that many gains in student achievement and performance were lost during the summer months stimulated many concerned people to call for a longer school year. It seemed to make sense that a longer academic year would help American youngsters catch up with their counterparts in other nations where school achievement levels are very high, such as China, India and Japan. In my opinion, there is no doubt about the value of a longer academic school year in helping students to make gains in their learning. However, it seems that there is something about High School that exposes students to very great risks.
Professsors Benjamin Hansen and Matthew Lang recently published a study that examined rates of suicide, accidents and homicides among American teenagers dating back many years and what they found is both interesting and disturbing. The article, "Back to School Blues: Seasonality of Youth Suicide and the Academic Calendar," can be found in the Economics of Education Review.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. What is startling about Hansen and Lang's study is that they found that the rates of suicide increase during the school year but dramatically decrease during summer vacaton and holidays such such as Christmas and Spring break. The results were consistent over multiple numbers of years. For example, the suicide rate tripled for 15 to 19 year olds between 1959 and 1990.
Factors other than High School attendance were carefully studied to see if they might account for the increased suicide rate. For example, Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD), which is likely to increase depression in the northeast when the skies are often cloudy and dull, was explored as a culprit that might explain what is happening to our adolescents. Nevertheless, the rate of adolescent suicide remained steady and consistent in states that are warm and sunny all year long. The decline in these suicide rates remained steady during summers and holidays regardless of state and weather. The rates remained steady for both males and females. The rates remained stable over ethnic, racial, and income groups across the nation.
Does High School put our kids at increased risk of hurting themselves?
There are certainly many pitfalls that teens face on the way to adulthood. Stress, worry, anxiety, tension and depression take a terrible toll on our young people. There are repeated headline news stories about kids taking their own lives as a result of bullying. During the school day, there is peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol. Competition for popularity among the in group and dreadful feelings experienced by those who are among the outsiders, results in emotional conflict and pain. Dating the opposite sex or facing homosexuality can be extremely painful for adolescents who struggle with low self esteem. In addition, family conflict, divorce, financial difficulties and joblessness can feed domestic abuse and violence. Any and all of these factors can make it difficult for our
kids to be at school.
Among the greatest pressure of all is having to focus attention during and after class, read, complete homework and term papers, study for tests and take part in extra curricular activities.
The answer to these problems is not to reduce the school year because many benefits are gained from its longer length. Instead, it is necessary to find solutions for our young people so that they can better handle pressure. It might be that our schools need more school-based mental health experts to offer emotional support to young people and their families. It is also possible that our schools are just too large. Too many young people can get overlooked because they become anonymous in schools that have so many students that the day is divided into shifts of attendance. Perhaps it is not only the teens who need help at this time but their families as well. Adolescence is experienced not only by the youngster but by the family because they also have to cope with shifting moods, conflicts and pressures.
What are your ideas about High School and the danger of suicide? This is an issue that terrifies parents and that is why I invite all of you, from teens to parents and grandparents, to engage in a lively disussion about a deeply important problem.
I hope to hear from many of you.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD