Schools and Suicide

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

Here I'll post a preliminary version of a Web page on the relationship between school attendance (especially compulsory school attendance) and youth suicide. I am continuing to research this subject and invite your comments by E-mail or by the comment form linked to from this page. Below are some research sources for your consideration.

First, some background. Harold Stevenson comments in his 1992 book The Learning Gap about pressure on students in different countries, "The first stereotype--that Asians put enormous pressure on their young children to learn academic skills--is an oft-cited indictment. As we will show, it is inaccurate. Although pressure builds during the high school years, when concerns about university entrance exams intensify, such pressure is not evident during the preschool or elementary school years, a time when levels of achievement already are high. Asian children work hard, but we know of no evidence that they suffer greater psychological distress than exists in Western children. [An end note citing a Michigan study of eleventh graders in the United States and Japan confirms the point.]"

Meanwhile, the United States has shown a very disturbing trend in youth suicide in the postwar years. As Herbert Hendin, M.D., notes in his Suicide in America (new and expanded edition, 1995), "In the United States from 1955 to 1980, the suicide rate among young people aged 15-24 rose markedly, and has remained high since. Among young women the rate more than doubled, going from 2 to 4.3/100,000; among young men the rate more than tripled, going from 6.3 to 20.2/100,000. The U.S. now ranks among the highest countries in the world in the suicide rate of its young men, surpassing Japan and Sweden, countries long identified with the problem of suicide." As other authors note, "In the United States, recent studies suggest that between 5 and 10 percent of adolescents have made suicide attempts . . . Suicide is currently the third leading cause of death among 15-to-24-year-olds, . . . Moreover, this incidence has increased threefold from the 1950s to the 1980s (Berman & Jobes, 1991; Fingerhut & Kleinman, 1988) . . ." James Zimmerman, "Treating Suicidal Adolescents: Is It Really Worth It?" in Treatment Approaches with Suicidal Adolescents (1995).

The maximum age of compulsory school attendance is now lower in Japan than in the United States. (The compulsory school attendance age range was longer in Japan than in the United States during the prewar years, the years when the Japanese youth suicide rate was higher than that in the United States.) Ken Schoolland is a college professor who lived for a time in Japan and wrote a book about his experiences as a college teacher there. (He is tendentiously quoted by supporters of compulsory, government-operated schooling as an expert on Japanese schools--even to support policy conclusions with which he disagrees.) Professor Schoolland has this to say about compulsory schooling in Japan: "Compulsory attendance in the regular schools through the junior high level [in Japan] . . . has surely contributed to the pressure cooker environment in which violence erupts. . . . The effect of letting go of some students appears to be dramatic because the incidence of bullying in high schools drops to only one-ninth that of the junior highs." Ken Schoolland, Shogun's Ghost (1990), page 181.

School programs intended to prevent suicide appear to do nothing to prevent the early death of young people. "Though schools are increasingly tackling youth suicide, their efforts spark controversy among researchers in the field. Last winter the New York State Psychiatric Institute's Shaffer argued in the Journal of the American Medical Association that by dwelling on the subject of suicide, many prevention programs can stir up dangerous feelings in vulnerable students--and thus may prompt precisely what they're supposed to prevent. In a survey of hundreds of ninth- and 10th-graders before and after they attended a month-long prevention program, Shaffer found that kids at the highest risk of suicide didn't change their views. 'Most teenagers already see suicidal behavior as unusual and dangerous,' he says. 'They don't need a class to persuade them. Most of these programs try to dramatize suicide, and we worried that in a minority of kids that could even stimulate thoughts of it.' He criticizes broad-based programs as a waste of resources and advocates instead that kids most likely to commit suicide get special, intensive treatment." Nancy Wartik, "Jerry's Choice: Why Are Our Children Killing Ourselves?" American Health, October 1991. Other researchers have reached the same conclusion that Shaffer reached about the ineffectiveness of suicide prevention programs in schools. "Although many curriculum-based suicide prevention programs have been operating since 1981 (Garland et al., 1989), there are only a few published evaluation studies using a control group (Garland & Zigler, 1993; Nelson, 1987; Ross, 1980). Spirito and colleagues' (1988) evaluation of a suicide awareness programme for ninth graders is one of the exceptions. Approximately 300 students who attended the programme were compared with about 200 students in a geographically matched control group. All students completed a battery of exercises covering suicide, hopelessness, helping behaviours, and coping skills prior to, and ten weeks after the implementation of a six-week curriculum in their health classes. The results indicated that the programme was minimally effective in imparting knowledge, and was ineffective in changing attitudes. In another similar study of boys by the same research group (Overholser et al., 1989) there was a change for the worse: an increase in hopelessness and maladaptive coping responses. In a large, well-controlled study in New Jersey, Shaffer et al. (1991) found few positive effects of three suicide prevention curriculum programmes and some possible negative effects. . . . Programme attendance was associated with a small, but significant, increase in the number of students who reported that suicide could be a possible solution to problems, a finding that converges with that from Mulder's study (Mulder, in press)." René F. W. Diekstra, C. W. M. Kienhorst, and E. J. de Wilde, "Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour among Adolescents" in Psychosocial Disorders in Young People: Time Trends and Their Causes edited by Michael Rutter and David J. Smith (1995) pages 736-737.

I have received several poignant E-mails from young people or from their parents that confirm that compulsory schooling in the United States can provoke thoughts of suicide. Several of the young people who wrote me credit leaving school with saving their sanity and their lives.

[Last revision 9 March 2013]

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This School Is Dead: Schools and Suicide page is copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved. No copyright claimed in works by authors quoted on this page, who retain their original copyrights.

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
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