Factors linked to adolescent suicide
This article was co-authored by Sinead Rhodes and guest writer Susan Rasmussen
The month of May is exam time for pupils and students up and down the country, so it is no surprise that there will be media coverage of research that examines issues like exam stress around this time. In the last week we have seen quite extensive media coverage suggesting a link between exam stress and suicide in teenagers. What was the research about, and how did the media handle this very sensitive issue?
The study has been described in-depth by the NHS Behind the Headlines team and we would highly recommend reading their post to find out more about the details of the study design and findings. In summary, the research was a consecutive case study conducted by researchers at the University of Manchester. The researchers contacted organisations in England that investigate child deaths that had occurred between January 2014 and April 2015. They examined the associated reports for factors known to be linked to suicide and calculated the number of deaths linked to each factor.
The report is based on 130 people that had died by suicide, 66 of whom were younger than 18. The data collected fit well with what is known within the literature in relation to many different factors being linked to suicide. In this particular study they reported the following proportions: recent relationship problems or relationship break-up (58%); expressing suicidal ideas (57%); previous self-harm (54%); any diagnosis of mental illness (39%); physical health condition (36%); bereavement (28%); academic pressures (27%); excessive alcohol use (26%); illegal drug use (29%); and bullying (22%). The researchers interpreted their findings as showing a complex pattern of stresses and adverse events before the suicides took place. Academic pressures and bullying were the factors that affected younger people in particular.
How did the media handle coverage of the study and its findings?
Most of the media coverage showed a sensitive handling of the study findings. While most coverage emphasised the role of multiple factors, for example ITV stated “Researchers found that there was often not one single cause behind the majority of suicides of those aged between 10 and 20”, some did tend to over-focus on one factor – namely exams – such as ‘suicide among teens mostly caused by exam stress, study finds’. The concern here is that parents whose teenager is feeling suicidal because of other common factors such as relationship breakdown, may overlook the warning signs because the teen isn’t currently sitting exams. Other coverage focused on the web as a key factor. One media outlet also referred to people who ‘committed suicide’, which is in the media guidelines as a term that shouldn’t be used.
The media did well in including independent expert opinion on the research and its findings some of whom referred to the role of multiple factors. For example, The Sun included a statement from Brian Dow, from Rethink Mental Illness and co-chair of the National Suicide Prevention Alliance: “It’s incredibly sad to read that young people are taking their own lives with factors like bereavement and exam pressure playing a role”. In the same article, Ian Hulatt, Professional Lead for Mental Health at the Royal College of Nurses, was quoted as stating: “Suicide is complex and this report paints a picture of young people with a variety of problems who find themselves unable to get the support they need”.
As young people often get their information on suicide from the media (indeed high profile cases can lead to copycat effects) it is important that reporting on suicide is conducted in a considered fashion. For example, the Samaritans guidelines for media reporting on suicide has avoiding over simplification as one of their ‘do’s and don’ts’. They state: “over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide. For example, avoid the suggestion that a single incident, such as loss of a job, relationship breakdown or bereavement, was the cause”. Parents, caregivers and others who are concerned about someone should keep in mind that there are multiple factors that could be warning signs. For more information, please see relevant NHS advice on this topic.