More Than a Third of Teens Surveyed Say They Have Contemplated Suicide

By Millicent Lawton — April 10, 1991 4 min read
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In the first national survey of teenagers on the subject of suicide, more than one-third say they have contemplated killing themselves, and 60 percent say they know other teenagers who have tried to commit suicide, a poll by the Gallup Organization has found.

The National Teen Suicide Audit--released last week in New York City and considered by Gallup a “benchmark” for further research--also showed that 6 percent of American teenagers have attempted suicide and that another 15 percent have come close to trying.

Gallup, which donated its year of work on the study, obtained written responses from a random sample of 1,152 teenagers ages 13 to 19 from November 1990 to January.

"[T]he Gallup study has taken a major step in amplifying the often-ignored cries of America’s next generation,” U.S. Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, said in a statement.

“This study provides the first evidence that [teenage suicide] is a significant social issue,” said Mr. Ackerman, who has introduced suicide-prevention legislation in the Congress and who served on the audit’s advisory board.

Barry Garfinkel, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School, characterized the survey as “an important piece.”

“Because it’s a national survey, it’s filling in pieces of the puzzle” about why adolescents hurt themselves, said Dr. Garfinkel, who has studied teenage suicide for nearly 20 years. He was not affiliated with the Gallup survey.

Family Problems Cited

Among those polled who came close to or actually attempted suicide--the third most common cause of death among youths--47 percent said family problems or problems at home had led them to do so.

Twenty-three percent cited depression as a cause; problems with friends and low self-esteem prompted 22 percent and 18 percent, respectively, to come close or try to kill themselves, the survey found.

The study also showed that teenagers who had a family member who had talked about, attempted, or committed suicide were more likely to come close or attempt suicide themselves.

For the 35 percent who had talked or thought about committing suicide, it was older teenagers, the youngest children in a family, and those who knew a teenager who had attempted suicide or a family member who had talked of or attempted suicide who were more likely to contemplate it for themselves, the report said.

Of the 60 percent who knew a teenager who had tried to commit suicide, 26 percent said the attempt was successful. For 43 percent of those respondents, the teenager was an acquaintance, one-third said it was a close friend, and 4 percent reported it was a relative.

Over all, teenagers responded most often that grades in school were their greatest problem in life, with 13 percent choosing that from a list of 22 troubles. The older the students, the more likely they were to respond that way, survey results showed.

Twelve percent cited career uncertainties as their greatest problem. And between 5 percent and 10 percent of the teenagers said their chief problem was either problems in growing up, fears, being like other teenagers, getting along with parents, financing college, or drug abuse.

More than two in five teenagers polled--or 41 percent--said their school had taken steps to prevent teenage suicide. Of those, 37 percent said the school offered counseling, 19 percent said other programs or meetings were scheduled, and 18 percent reported peer-counseling efforts.

Asked what their school should do to prevent teenage suicide, respondents offered three main suggestions: having a special program for teenagers with problems, holding a special course for parents on how to be better parents, and telling students about such outside help as hot lines and drop-in groups.

Minnesota Study

Dr. Garfinkel said the Gallup data, including the figure that 6 in 100 teenagers have attempted suicide, parallel what he found in a recent study of Minnesota high-school students that has yet to be published.

In light of data that about 20 in 100,000 teenagers actually commit suicide, Dr. Garfinkel said, the 6 in 100 figure is surprising because it means that, for every one suicide, there are apparently 300 attempts.

One explanation for the high rate, he said, could be that adolescents who harbor suicidal thoughts “are hiding it from the adults around them.”

Many youths may try suicide, Dr. Garfinkel said, by taking pills in their bedroom, for example, but wake up the next morning and go to school as usual, never mentioning it to anyone.

Or, he said, another explanation for the rate could be that what high-school students call “attempts” are different from what researchers consider to be attempts.

Teenagers may call a plan that is half-heartedly or never carried out an “attempt” instead of a “gesture or cry for help,” Dr. Garfinkel said.

Gary Hoeltke, a senior vice president at the Gallup Organization and a former school psychologist, said he was not surprised by the study’s results.

Instead, he said he suspects the data that 6 percent of teenagers have attempted suicide to be conservative. “The problem may be more extensive than we think,” Mr. Hoeltke said.

To find out more, Gallup plans to conduct more surveys, perhaps as often as annually, he said.

Additional suicide research by Gallup also will try to gather more data on minority teenagers and those who live in big cities, said Robert Corman, executive director of the Gallup International Institute, the Gallup Organization’s nonprofit counterpart.

Minority and urban teenagers were not well represented in the current study, Mr. Corman said, noting, for example, that blacks made up just 6 percent of the survey sample while they make up about 12 percent of the general population.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 1991 edition of Education Week as More Than a Third of Teens Surveyed Say They Have Contemplated Suicide


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