Research Watch: Teens and Suicide Attempts: Who Is At Risk?

Diana Zuckerman
July 1, 1999

Iris Wagman Borowsky, M.D., Ph.D. et al.

Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine

June 1999, pgs 573-80

Free copy available from Dr. Borowsky, Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota, Box 571 FUMC, 420 Delaware St SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, or at

Suicide attempts are also very high among Native Americans and Alaska Native youth. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among these groups.
In a study of more than 11,600 students in grades 7-12 at schools at reservation communities in eight different Indian Health Service areas, 22 percent of the girls and 12 percent of the boys reported having ever attempted suicide. This study included junior high school students, whereas the above study on sexual orientation only included grades 9-12.

Suicide attempts were especially likely among youths who had a friend who had attempted or committed suicide, but there were other characteristics that were also independently associated with suicide. These included having a family member who had attempted or committed suicide, having a history of physical or sexual abuse, having frequent headaches or stomach problems, having health concerns, frequent alcohol or marijuana use and having ever used any other illegal or harmful drug.

There were some differences between the boys and girls who attempted suicide. For girls, knowing where to get a gun and having been in a special education class were associated with having attempted suicide. For boys, being involved with a gang or being treated for emotional problems were associated with having attempted suicide. These all “predicted” suicide attempts independently of the health problems, drug use and experience with friends or families attempting or committing suicide.

The researchers also studied the characteristics and experiences that tended to prevent suicide attempts. They found that feeling connected to their families, discussing problems with friends or family members and general emotional health “protected” youths from attempting suicide, even if they had some of the characteristics that significantly predicted suicide attempts.

The “risk factors” and the “protective factors” were equally important. For example, more than three out of four boys and girls with three or more risk factors and no protective factors attempted suicide, but the risk decreased if the teenager had any protective factors or fewer risk factors.

All the students were from Alaska, Arizona, California, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota or Tennessee. The data were based on the 1990 National American Indian Adolescent Health Survey. The survey included one question about same-sex sexual fantasies, which was not related to suicide attempts in this study.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Teens and Suicide Attempts: Who Is At Risk?” Research Watch review of Suicide Attempts Among American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. Youth Today, July/August 1999, p. 12.

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