Student Well-Being

Is Body Image a Suicide Risk?

June 21, 2005 1 min read

A study released this month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine concludes that teenagers who perceive themselves as overweight or underweight—even if they’re not—may be more at risk of suicidal behavior than those who don’t hold such perceptions. The study, which analyzed data from the 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 13,601 high school students, found that nearly half the students surveyed thought they were not the right weight. And teenagers who perceived themselves as anything other than the right weight were more than twice as likely as their peers to have considered suicide.

Gender did not appear to be a significant factor. Both boys and girls who perceived themselves to be anything other than a normal weight were equally at risk.

Researchers also compared students within races. For instance, they found that African-American students who perceived themselves to be “very overweight” did not show a significantly higher risk of attempting suicide than their black peers who considered themselves to be a normal weight.

The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has an abstract of the article “Associations of Body Mass Index and Perceived Weight With Suicide Ideation and Suicide Attempts Among US High School Students”.

On the other hand, white students who perceived themselves to be “very overweight” were more than twice as likely to make a suicide attempt than their white peers who perceived their weight to be about normal.

Among Hispanic students, those who perceived themselves to be “very overweight” were nearly twice as likely to have attempted suicide than their Hispanic peers who perceived their weight to be normal.

However, the researchers note that the findings do not provide any answers on what causes those body-weight perceptions and say that the study doesn’t show that being overweight or underweight is a cause of suicide.

“That’s something we weren’t able to answer,” said Danice K. Eaton, a research scientist for the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the study’s lead author. She said that more research needs to be done to determine how students form perceptions about their bodies.

An important question to ask, she said, is whether students form their physical perceptions first or if a mental illness influences how they perceive themselves.

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