New study examines the confidence of high school counselors in recognizing teens at risk for suicide

December 05, 1999

A University of Cincinnati assistant professor has published, in the "American Journal for Health Behavior," the first nationwide study to examine whether or not high school counselors feel they are able to spot teens at risk for suicide. The majority of counselors, 87 percent, believed it was their job to recognize teens at risk for suicide, yet only 38 percent believed they could identify the warning signs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control ranks suicide as the second-leading cause of death for people 15-19 years old, following accidents as the No. 1 killer of that age group. U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher recently issued a nationwide call for programs aimed at preventing teen suicide.

Assistant professor Keith King of UC's College of Education led the survey of 186 high school counselors who are members of the American School Counselor Association.

"Along with school psychologists, these are the school professionals who are the most trained in mental health issues," says King. "If the school professionals who are the most trained in identifying a child at risk for suicide feel they cannot identify a child at risk, what does that mean? It means kids in need are being missed."

The counselors had been working in the field an average of 11 years and had been at their present schools an average of eight-and-one-half years. They responded to 45 questions, including whether a student had attempted suicide since they began employment at the school (74 percent of the respondents reported one or more students had attempted suicide). Two thirds (66 percent) of the counselors said they had school crisis-intervention teams to handle suicide attempts, while only one-third (34 percent) said suicide prevention was taught in their school curricula.

"Unfortunately, many schools will not touch suicide prevention," continued King. "They believe if they talk about it, then it will happen. However, the research does not back that belief, and in fact, is in total oppostion to that."

The study recommended more thorough training for high school counselors in addition to the development of crisis-intervention teams.

King says young people need to feel more connected to their families, their communities and their schools. "I think teens today face many different stressors than they did in the past. There are a lot of kids out there who feel lonely and isolated and feel others do not understand them."

The study was conducted by King; professors James Price and Susan Tellijohann, University of Toledo; and Dr. Jeffrey Wahl, M.D., Department of Psychiatry, Medical College of Ohio. It was published in the November issue of the "American Journal of Health Behavior."

University of Cincinnati

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