First long-term study examines predictors of suicide attempts in young people

Researchers have carried out the first long-term study into potential factors that could lead to suicide attempts in high-risk young people.

The University of Bristol team examined questionnaire data from young people taken over a five-year period when they were aged between 16 and 21.

They concentrated on following the responses of 310 young people who had experienced suicidal thoughts at the age of 16.

Their research, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, examined what proportion would make an attempt on their own life and whether those at greatest risk could be identified.

It found that 12% of 16-year-olds with suicidal thoughts went on to make a suicide attempt by the time they were 21.

Factors that predicted suicide attempts were non-suicidal self-harm, use of cannabis and other illicit drugs, and exposure to self-harm in family or friends.

Young people who had a personality type that was more open to new ideas and experiences were also more likely to attempt to take their own lives.

The study also looked at factors which might predict suicide attempts in 16-year-olds who reported non-suicidal self-harm.

It found the best predictors in this group were cannabis and drug use, sleep problems, and a less extroverted personality type.

Young people who experienced both suicidal thoughts and non-suicidal self-harm at the age of 16 were a particularly high-risk group.

One in five in this category attempted suicide in the five-year period.

Dr Becky Mars, research fellow at the University of Bristol, said: “Most young people who think about suicide will not make an attempt on their life.

“To help us identify which teenagers are most at risk, it’s crucial that we know more about how we can predict thoughts (turning) into actions.

“Although other studies have found differences between young people who have thought about suicide and those who have made an attempt, this is the first study to look at predictors over time.

“Findings from our study could be used to help those who work with young people identify those in greatest need of timely help, support and interventions.”

Dr Mars said the researchers were now planning research to examine predictors during shorter timeframes and other predictors not covered in the study.

She described this work as “important” as many well-established risk factors for suicide, such as mental health problems, do not predict suicide attempts in the high-risk groups.

The work, funded by NIHR Bristol Biomedical Research Centre and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is believed to be the first time academics have looked at predictors of future suicide attempts.

Researchers used data from Bristol’s Children Of The 90s study, which charts the health of 14,500 families in the area.

It is hoped their findings will help professionals who work with teenagers to assess those at high-risk.

Professor David Gunnell, of the University of Bristol, said: “While suicidal thoughts and self-harm are common in young people, with around one in six young people reporting self-harm, suicide and suicide attempts are thankfully relatively rare.

“Being better able to identify those at greatest risk and intervening may help reduce suicides in young people.”

Jacqui Morrissey, assistant director of research and influencing at the Samaritans, described the research as “valuable”.

“Identifying young people most at risk from suicide will help save lives,” she said.

“Looking at a group of young people over a long period – five years – and understanding more about potential predictors of suicide attempts provides us with valuable information.

“We know that the majority of young people, even those who have suicidal thoughts, will not try to take their own lives.

“This new research should help improve ways of identifying and supporting those young people who are in the high-risk category.”

The Samaritans can be contacted free of charge on 116 123 or [email protected].

Papyrus HopelineUK is a confidential support and advice service for children and young people under the age of 35 and can be reached on 0800 068 41 41.

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