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BYU study identifies key risk factors for teen suicides

Posted at 10:47 AM, Nov 04, 2021

PROVO, Utah — Researchers from BYU, Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University have created an algorithm that can predict suicidal thoughts and behavior among adolescents with 91% accuracy.

Key findings and research methods were outlined in an article published November 3; they found that the leading predictors of suicidal thoughts and behavior among adolescents were online harassment and bullying by a student at school.

Living in a household with extreme tension is also a key factor. Three of the top ten predictors include being in a family that: 1) has serious arguments; 2) argues about the same things repeatedly; and 3) yells and insults one another.

“Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the U.S.,” said Michael Barnes, study coauthor and Associate Dean of the BYU College of Life Sciences.

“It’s critical we have a better understanding of the risk factors — and the protective factors — associated with this heartbreaking issue. Our study explores those factors among adolescents to reflect the school and home environments."

Researchers analyzed data from 179,384 Utah junior high and high school students, along with those who participated in the Student Health and Risk Prevention survey from 2011-2017.

They applied various algorithms to the data and found a machine-learning model that accurately predicted which adolescents went on to have suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

BYU Professor Quinn Snell says this study can be used by school counselors and parents to identify at-risk children more quickly, and understand the predictive factors in conversations with them.

He also says they're working with public health professors as to whether these thoughts are different among age groups so school counselors can help recognize situations as they happen.

“For me it’s about what can we do in the school system and in our families and things like that to look at ways to help the children,” he added.

Data showed that females were more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and behavior than males, and that those adolescents without a father in the home were nearly 75% more likely to have suicidal ideation than those that did.

“This analysis finds the most important root causes of suicidal thoughts and behavior in adolescents and creates risk profiles that give us a clearer picture of adolescents that are at risk,” said study coauthor Carl Hanson, professor of public health at BYU.

“If you want to wrap your head around what you can do about it, these profiles are one good place to start.”