Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Preventing Youth Suicide Requires Active Parental Involvement

Vijay K. Mathur

“Everything depends upon upbringing”.
Leo Tolstoy

Young adults in Utah and throughout the US are increasingly suffering from social pathologies such as drug abuse, depression, suicide and/or suicidal thoughts.  The Salt Lake Tribune, April 5, 2018, reported on a CDC study, finding that during 2011- 2015 the Utah suicide rate doubled, “growing four times faster annually than the national average.”  News reports show that suicides among teens at Harriman High School have reached crisis level.  

Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that opioid use deaths in Utah from the age of 0-24 years increased from 2014 to 2016.  Utah Department of Health reports that suicide rate among Utah youth aged 10 to 17 exceed US rate since 1999, is the leading cause of death and has been increasing since 2007.

School authorities, teachers, health and psychological experts are in a quandary about how to get a handle on these pathologies. Since a large percentage of suicides are committed with the use of firearms, CDC blames easy access to firearms.  But access to firearms does not address preventive causes of suicide. 

I recognize that there are various causes of stress and depression among young adults and the resultant tendency to commit suicide.  However, the most important factor that is lost in the discussion, that gets only cursory attention from experts and policy makers, is the role parents play in the lives of their children. 

Numerous studies find a very significant role of parents in the emotional well being of their children.   T. Holms and R. Rahe reported in their study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research(1967), that out of 10 stressors on a psychological stress test for young people, 8 are parent related.  Parental attention for the emotional well being of children requires parental time.  When both parents are working or a single mother has to work and raise the family, it becomes all the more important to allocate scarce time efficiently to address stress and other emotional issues confronting their children.

A large scale study by F. Van Wel, H. Linssen and R. Abm in the Journal of Youth Adolescence(2000) found that parental bonding improves psychological well being, as measured by stress and suicidal thoughts, in a sample of 1688 Dutch adolescents /young adults from 12 to 24 years of age. 

I am sure parents love their children. However, bonding and parenting time must compliment love.  Children should feel open and comfortable to unload their emotional stress on their parents as well as share their joyous moments, relationships with friends and other concerns.

The macro study by myself and Donald Freeman, Health Economics(2002), examined the role of income and parenting time in predicting adolescent suicide rates, using a sample of 48 states of the continental US from 1970-1997.  This study used per capita wage income in the statistical analysis to explain adolescent suicide rates, after controlling for other contributing factors such as alcohol use, divorce rates, large family size and unemployment.  

Wage income affects youth suicide through two components.  Increase in wage income of parents decreases suicide rates as it relieves some of the familial emotional stress associated with lack of income, but it also increases incentive to increase work time, hence decreasing parenting time.  Lack of parenting time increases suicide rates.  However, the good news is that the effect of income dominates the effect of parenting time on suicide; higher wage income and parenting time have positive social value.

Professor James Heckman argues in Economic Inquiry(2008), that parental attention to their children is necessary to develop cognitive (analytical) skills and non-cognitive skills such as self-esteem, motivation and self-control.  Studies also show that more educated working mothers, as opposed to less educated, devote more time to childcare to develop cognitive and non-cognitive skills.  

Thus income security with living wage to less educated and low-income parents matters for healthy family lifestyle.  However, serious consideration must also be given to provide parenting skills to such families so that they are able to raise children with cognitive and non-cognitive skills.  Churches, schools and other non-profit organizations could help.  

Mathur is former chair and professor of economics, now professor emeritus, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio.  He resides in Ogden, Utah.

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