SOSAD Beginings
Factors Influencing Youth Suicide
By Steve Tripp
Bachelor of Nursing Student (article found on the Internet)

One of the more disheartening health issues in New Zealand today is youth suicide. For the 15- 24 year old age bracket it is the second leading cause of death after motor vehicle crashes and it is increasing dramatically.

Between the years 1955 and 1989 the male youth rate increased by 630% while there was a 100% increase in the female rate over the same period. New Zealand is not alone in facing this rise in youth suicide rates. It seems to be occurring throughout the western world, but New Zealand and Australia are unique in that our youth suicide rates are higher than our overall suicide rates (Brett, 1993).

So what is happening to our young people that is leading them to take their own lives now more than any other time? In this paper I will address the question of what factors contribute to youth suicide. I will begin by looking at suicide using a sociological perspective and then look at individual psychological factors that appear to be present. Then I will see how these two approaches fit together and how this can apply to us.

To understand the sociological perspective on what influences suicide it is helpful to use the work of Emile Durkheim. In 1897 he published his work on suicide in which he studied the suicide rates in countries of western Europe and found social phenomena which matched the patterns of those rates (Giddens, 1971). He found three social causes for suicide which he called egoism, altruism, and anomie. The first two are concerned with the degree of integration of members of society, that is , the degree to which members share common values.

Egoism occurs when the social bonds attaching people to society slacken and so the bond which attaches them to life also slackens. They become isolated from society and Durkheim (as cited in Lukes, 1973) recognised this excessive individualism in highly educated people, unmarried men, and people without families. He also saw this as a result of capitalist ideals. Altruism occurs at the other end of the scale when people become too attached to society. They lose any individual perspective and their will becomes fused with that of the whole group. The common goal of society then takes over.

Durkheim recognised this in the pre-enlightenment societies of the middle ages where the community could be of more importance than the individual. This can also be seen in soldiers in battle especially since military training involves being drilled to place little value on the person (Lukes, 1973). Anomie is concerned with the degree of regulation in society, that is, the extent to which there are clear and unambiguous norms.

When society lacks such regulation it is in a state of anomie which changes the way that people fit into society. Durkheim saw this happening in places experiencing an economic recession as the expectations which people had because of their place in society were no longer attainable (Lukes, 1973). This was seen in the Great Depression as the suicide rate among middle aged men rose with unemployment (Brett, 1993).

Durkheim's theories look as if they could apply to the rise in youth suicide in New Zealand today. The user pays system and aggressive market policies introduced by our governments over the last 10 years have encouraged egoism as society has valued individualism and being able to stick it out on your own more and more over helping those who are worse off. The social bonds are being destroyed.

The rapidity with which these changes came about have brought about a state of anomie in our society, which was a relatively stable welfare state. How much is society alienating our young people, leaving them feeling like they don't matter and without hope? It does seem that using Durkheim's framework there could be strong social factors which have increased the youth suicide rate over the past few years but there are many questions which need to be asked.

Why is it that youth rates are climbing and not the suicide rate of the general population? Why is it that for some, life becomes too difficult whereas others can grin and bear it? What factors influence a particular individual to kill themselves and what, apart from writing to our MP or Paul Holmes, can we do about it?

The factors influencing individuals are the issues that psychologists are interested in, and two studies in Christchurch have helped to shine some light on what these factors are. The Canterbury Suicide Project began in 1992 and is to run over a four year period. Over that time they intend to collect data from more than 200 suicide cases in Christchurch by interviewing family, friends, and health professionals to build up a picture of the background circumstances leading up to these suicides (Beautrais, 1992).

In 1994 this project stated that their initial impressions have reiterated what has been found by much overseas research. About 90% of those who die by suicide can be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, with the most common being depression, alcohol or drug dependence and conduct disorder or anti-social personality disorder. More often than not they have two or more of these diagnoses. They have also found that a disproportionate number of people came from a family social background that was abusive, chaotic or dysfunctional in some way.

The other Christchurch study is the "Christchurch Health and Development Study" which has been following the progress of 1265 children born in the city in 1977. Fergusson and Lynskey (1995) have recently released a report on the prevalence of suicide attempts and the circumstances involved in those situations using the information from this study. This information is particularly useful as data was recorded throughout the individuals' lives and not just after they had attempted suicide.

By the age of 16 years 3% of the sample reported having made a suicide attempt and the same factors were found at the same frequency as in the "Canterbury Suicide Projects" findings. Nearly 90% of those attempting suicide had at least one of the psychiatric disorders mentioned earlier. Those with a psychiatric disorder were 16 times more at risk of suicidal behaviour than those without such problems. 93% of those attempting suicide had at least one problem of social adjustment compared with 37% of the entire sample.

Those with problems of adjustment were 22 times more at risk than those without. Adjustment problems included low self-esteem, leaving school early, juvenile offending and police contact. Those with more problems were more at risk. Fergusson and Lynskey also report that those who attempted suicide had childhoods which were characterised by disadvantageous circumstances. These included poor economic circumstances, high rates of parental substance abuse and offending behaviours, less responsive early maternal care (they did not mention paternal care), lower levels of childhood experiences, more parental change, family conflict, and more frequent changes of school and residence. Their studies showed the presence of a strong relationship between the measure of childhood circumstances and rates of attempted suicide.

Their conclusion was that there is a common pathway leading to adolescent suicide. This pathway involves early unsatisfactory family and childhood circumstances which increases an individual's vulnerability to problems of adjustment and psychiatric disorders in adolescence and these in turn increase the risk of that individual attempting suicide. This conclusion throws some light on how social factors and individual psychological factors combine in influencing a youth to attempt suicide. Sociologists and psychologists have often been critical of each others' different approach to understanding suicide and how to deal with it (Brett, 1993).

I believe it is important to understand all these factors for us to address the need adequately. It seems that our family structures have been changing as our society has changed and this has had a direct influence on the youth of today. In 1991 the former Ministry of Youth Affairs senior advisory officer claimed our rising suicide rates were a response to "New Zealand's male macho image,... unemployment, changing family structures, breakdown in traditional systems and a general sense of fatalism about the future" (Brett, 1993, p 91).

We need to be aware of the impact our society has on the family and the impact of the family on the individual. There seems to be more and more evidence coming out that a predisposition to psychiatric disorders is genetic, however, there still needs to be a number of triggers that determine whether or not one will develop that illness. For example, of two people with a predisposition to depression, one that grows up in disadvantageous childhood circumstances may get depression and attempt suicide whereas the other may not.

Although treating psychiatric disorders is important for those at risk now, Fergusson and Lynskey (1995) go on to suggest that an important component of any effective suicide prevention programme would be the development of family support programmes to address the needs of high risk families and their offspring. Appropriate family intervention schemes can significantly reduce subsequent adolescent adjustment problems. There is an increasing amount of evidence which supports this (Garland & Ziglar, 1993).

There is no short term solution to the problem of youth suicide. In fact, if there is any solution then it needs to be multi-faceted. It is not enough to say society must change without working with the youth at risk now. It is not enough to have mental health awareness campaigns if we do not strive to provide a better environment for the youth of tomorrow.
References Beautrais, A., (1992). Research design and interim report. Canterbury Suicide Project Bulletin, 1 (Feb), Christchurch School of Medicine. Brett, C., (1993). Lost boys. North and South, June, 88-97. Canterbury Suicide Project Bulletin, (1994). (4) Feb, Christchurch School of Medicine. Fergusson, D. and Lynskey, M., (1995). Childhood Circumstances, Adolescent Adjustment and Suicide Attempts in a New Zealand Birth Cohort (unpublished). Garland, A. and Ziglar, E., (1993). Adolescent suicide prevention: Current research and social policy implications. American Psychologist, 48 (2), 169-181. Giddens, A., (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. London: Cambridge University Press. Lukes, S., (1973). Emile Durkheim. London: Penguin Books.  Back to SOSAD