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College of Public Health

Study Links Suicide and Substance Abuse

Study finds link between indicators of suicide and substance abuse among youth

Thursday, February 14, 2008

JOHNSON CITY – A study published in the current issue of the Journal of School Health sends a strong message about the importance of preventing substance abuse among teenagers and raising awareness of the warning signs of suicide.

Lead author Dr. Michael Dunn, who is an associate professor in East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, said the study found that a large percentage of middle school students who had initiated some type of substance abuse behavior also reported having thoughts about suicide, and that some had actually planned or attempted such an event.

The study involved more than 10,000 middle school students at 10 sites across Tennessee who completed the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

“With substance abuse alone, we found that a large percentage of adolescents had initiated use of alcohol or illicit drugs at least once,” Dunn said.  “From a public health perspective, this is very concerning.  This is how addictions begin, and we are seeing sixth, seventh, and eighth graders already participating in risky behaviors that can be detrimental to their health.”

In addition, the survey measured indicators for suicide by asking the students if they considered, planned, or attempted suicide.  Approximately 28 percent of females and 19 percent of males reported thinking about suicide, while 19 percent of adolescent girls and 13 percent of boys said at one time they had planned a suicide.  Nearly 13 percent of teen girls and 7 percent of teen males actually made an attempt.

“As the data was analyzed, there was a strong association between substance abuse and suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” Dunn said.  “It is clear that prevention programs for adolescent suicide and substance abuse begin during the middle school years.”

Co-authors of the article are Dr. Bruce Goodrow, Research and Development Coordinator, Rural Health Service Consortium; Connie Givens, Executive Director of Coordinated School Health, Tennessee Department of Education; and Susan Austin, Evaluation Coordinator, ETSU College of Public Health.  The study was funded by the Tennessee Coordinated School Health Initiative through the Tennessee Department of Education.

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