SALT LAKE CITY — Religious and family involvement may be key to lowering the risk of suicide for those between the ages of 10 and 19, according to a new report by the Utah Department of Health.
Youths who reported attending religious services or activities at least once a week, 60.4 percent, were half as likely to have considered suicide than those who did not. Those who had shown symptoms of depression were less likely to consider suicide when deeply involved in their families and religion, the report says.
"If that family has good, strong relationships, if they have good communication skills, if the children feel valued and they’re part of the decision-making process with their family … that protects them from other risk factors they may have," said Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health.
Those findings, released last week, show suicide as the leading cause of death in 2013 for children between 10 and 19 in Utah, above unintentional injuries. The study also showed that 14.1 percent of students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades had seriously considered suicide in the preceding year. The youth suicide rate in Utah is consistently higher than the nationwide average and has been growing for almost a decade.
This was the first time the health department looked for protective factors associated with lower levels of suicide ideation, which is defined as thinking about suicide, experiencing suicidal thoughts or considering attempting suicide.
The survey results used data that were analyzed employing a regression model that controlled for other variables in order to give researchers a clear idea of the relationship between risk or protective factors and the likelihood of a youth contemplating suicide, according to department officials. The department declined to report data more specifically out of concern about misrepresenting factors surrounding youth suicide and to avoid over-inflating any specific facet of the data.
Of the protective factors — which include the effects of positive peer, school, community and family settings — family was the only factor that showed a significant effect on reducing suicidal thoughts.
Teens with positive family environments — described as having input in making family decisions, a chance to participate in fun family activities, and the ability to ask their parents for help with personal problems — were 25 percent less likely to report experiencing thoughts of suicide. Eating family meals together also cut suicide ideation in half.
Having family meals "feels tangible to parents. Like if we use that time to be together to have communication with our kids, talk about what's going on, let them know that we are there to support them, we care about them, we want them in our lives, we love them," Johnson said.
"And that can happen in a meal time. That seems much more hopeful than just, 'Well, your kid’s getting bullied. Good luck.'"
The students who reported high levels of religious participation — attending services one time per week or more — were half as likely to have contemplated suicide.
“The adolescents that see suicide as an option are the ones who feel very isolated and feel that, you know, in a lot of cases they’re all alone," said Greg Hudnall, executive director of Hope4Utah, an organization that trains schools, businesses, communities and individuals about suicide prevention. "The religion helps them to feel a connectedness, and that connectedness is very powerful."
Of the students surveyed, 18.6 percent said they had been bullied at least two times during the previous year. These youths were four and half times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than those who were not bullied. Almost 16 percent reported having been bullied electronically more than once in the past year. Those in this group were four and a half times more likely to have considered suicide. Those who experienced both types of bullying more than once in the year were 5.8 times more likely to have considered suicide.
Youths who engaged in three or more hours of daily screen time for activities not related to school, 24.8 percent, were twice as likely to have seriously thought about suicide as those who used computers or video games for two or fewer hours.
Protective factors have the potential to offset risk factors such as bullying and excessive screen time, Johnson said.
Where the family and religious community support can break down for teens is if either or both withdraw their support or love, according to Johnson.
"Individuals who feel they do not have a strong support system, whether that’s because they’re LGBT or they come from a broken home or whatever the case may be, those folks that do not have that strong positive connection to their families — as the study shows — are at risk of suicide ideation in general," she said.
It becomes even more severe when a teen loses both familial and religious community support simultaneously, Hudnall said.
In addition to his community and business trainings, Hudnall has helped create Hope Squads in many Utah schools where students are trained to "break the barrier of silence" that can surround those who are experiencing suicide ideation.
Similar to the popular saying that it takes a village to raise a child, "we say it takes an entire community to save one. … A high percentage of suicides are not prevented by medical experts," he said.
One thing parents and religious communities can do is help youths deal with disappointment, psychological stress and failure, he said.
The Rev. Mike Imperiale of the First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City said he has seen religion help struggling teens in his 30 years as a pastor, but it depends on the teen's relationship with God.
There is a big difference between a teenager who feels that God cares about them and loves them unconditionally and one who "(feels) that their relationship is based on how well they're doing, how good they are, how compliant they are or not," he said.
As a pastor, he seeks to help teens with suicidal thoughts know they are normal and encourages them to talk and work through their concerns with someone.
"We’re meant to be together. We’re in this together," the Rev. Imperiale said. "Don’t try to do this on your own."
He also tells them "their life is priceless. Their mind and their heart and their will and their abilities and their future is worth everything."
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, there are resources to help. Call the UNI Crisis Line at 801-587-3000, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Regardless of where the call is from, people will be connected with those in their area who can help.