Social stress contributes to suicide risk in adolescents

Social stress contributes to suicide risk in adolescents

The cases of completed suicides in children and adolescents in recent months – that of the Oviedo twins, a week ago, that of the 17-year-old boy in Burgos - who died on Wednesday, and that of the Sallent twins, in February – put shows the seriousness of a social problem that requires an urgent and coordinated response.

Suicide is currently the main absolute cause of death in Spain between 15 and 29 years of age. Suicides in children under 15 years of age increased by 57% in Spain in 2022 – we are at an average of about 25 per year – and, in that same year, the Anar Foundation, dedicated to providing support to children and adolescents at risk, attended 4,554 cases due to suicidal ideation and was able to save the lives of 1,275 minors, who had already started the suicide attempt at the time of contacting them.

There is evidence that rates of suicidal behavior and self-harm are particularly high among girls and that, in them, interpersonal stressors, such as conflicts with peers, friends, family, and romantic partners are closely related to autolytic behavior. However, the consummation of suicide is more common in boys.

Now, new research published by the American Psychological Association in the journal Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical ScienceAdd two new risk factors to this complex equation: social stress and deficit in problem solving. Regarding the second aspect, some psychosocial theories on suicidal behavior suggest that the poor ability of adolescents to solve social problems may contribute to this relationship, since they are more likely to see suicide as a viable solution to their distress when they feel they have exhausted other options.

The study aimed to test these associations taking into account both experimentally simulated measures of social stress and real-world measures. The participants were 185 girls between 12 and 17 years old that they had experienced some mental health problem in the last two years. At the beginning of the study, the participants completed surveys and interviews about their mental health symptoms and suicidal behaviors and completed a task that assessed their social problem-solving skills, which involved responding to scenarios involving interpersonal conflicts or challenges with people around them. .

Next, they were asked to perform a task that has been shown -in previous studies- to induce social stress: they had to prepare and deliver a three-minute speech to what they thought was an audience of colleagues watching them through a video connection. Immediately after the stressful task, they redid the social problem solving task to see if social stress caused a decrease in their ability to solve problems. The researchers also they followed the girls for nine months, with checkups every three monthsto ask them about stressors they experienced in interpersonal settings, such as with peers, friends, and family, as well as suicidal behaviors.

"The findings provide empirical support for cognitive and behavioral theories of suicide that suggest that deficits in the abilities to effectively manage and resolve interpersonal problems may be related to suicidal behavior," said study lead author Olivia Pollak, from the University of of North Carolina (United States) - Clinically, this is remarkable, since Problem solving figures prominently in various treatments for suicidal or self-injurious behaviors."

Overall, they found that girls who showed a greater decline in problem-solving effectiveness in the lab, and who also experienced higher levels of interpersonal stress during the nine-month follow-up period, were more likely to exhibit suicidal behavior during the 9-month follow-up period. the duration of the follow-up.

In Spain, we have several resources such as the suicidal behavior hotline (024) and the ANAR Foundation Help lines for children and adolescents (900 20 20 10 and and families (600 50 51 52) to avoid and prevent suicidal behavior in minors.