Queens College Professor Jennifer Kyle Takes an Unflinching Look at Youth Suicide

Many students believe that no one can understand what they’re feeling; those who talk to a skilled professional invariably report feeling better.

Whatever you may think you know about suicide, says Jennifer Kyle, think again. Much of it is likely to be misleading.

Over the past decade, Kyle, an assistant professor in QC’s Department of Educational & Community Programs, has studied suicide, and particularly youth suicide, from every possible angle: statistical, economic, psychological, and cultural. An article she recently completed, “Trends in Youth Suicide: Recommendations for School Counselors,” reflects her experience and sensibilities as an educator, researcher, psychotherapist, and clinical psychologist. “Youth suicide is a problem that cannot be ignored in education,” she says. “School counselors should be at the forefront of efforts to address it.”

It’s a problem that shows no signs of abating. Of the 34,000 people who take their own lives in the United States each year, 12 percent are school-aged youth. But add the number of at-risk students—those who contemplate or attempt suicide—“and the scope of the crisis increases dramatically,” explains Kyle. “For every youth suicide, there are at least 100 suicide attempts by those aged 15 to 24.”

Suicide, in fact, is the second leading cause of death among U.S. college students. But the mortality count tells only part of the story, omitting the devastating impact of suicidal ideation and behaviors on every aspect of a student’s life. To shed light on the problem of suicide by college students, Kyle recently completed a study of how undergraduates use interpersonal relationships to cope with stressful experiences. “The aim was to find out what kinds of coping mechanism students use,” she says. “Do they meet with friends or go for counseling?  Ideally, the data will not only identify patterns of distress and coping, but point to services and techniques that can inform prevention strategies.”

And prevention, Kyle is quick to note, is key. While the statistics of suicide can be endlessly parsed and extrapolated, “we tend to get stuck on the data without translating it into usable prevention techniques.” She recalls attending weekend gatherings of suicide survivors organized annually by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), where she worked as a research administrator a decade ago.

“For the first time, I saw the faces of survivors close-up—parents, siblings, spouses, and partners—just looking for a way to understand and find a place to put their grief,” she says. “Once you see the face of a survivor, it’s hard not to think about prevention. Research should not be just about numbers.”

To be sure, suicide isn’t an area Kyle set out to study when she began her career. As a graduate student in psychology, she worked at a financial services firm to support herself while casting about for a position closer to her academic interests. Accepting an offer from the AFSP, she evaluated grant requests, developed medical education curricula, and helped create suicide-prevention programs. Since then, she has worked in a range of clinical settings as a psychotherapist and staff psychologist. She joined the QC faculty in 2008 from Borough of Manhattan Community College, where she was an assistant professor in the department of social sciences.

In her article on youth suicide, as in many of her earlier presentations, Kyle examines the cultural variables in youth suicide trends with a special focus on minority youth. Some of the statistical correlations are dramatic: Between 1980 and 1985, for example, suicides by African Americans ages 10 to 19 increased by 114 percent, with a 233 percent spike in the 10-to-14 range.

Behind these numbers is a thicket of ambiguities and disconnects and a dearth of easy answers. Although suicide rates for African-American youth are lower than for white youth, African Americans make attempts at a much younger age. Nor has the upward trend in suicides among black youth been steady; rather, says Kyle, the past 50 years have seen sharp upticks and drops. “Blacks and Latinos have historically been at lower risk than whites due to the protective influence of family, church, and social supports,” she says. “But rising suicide rates among blacks seem to contradict this assumption.” One possible explanation: perhaps black youth haven’t been making use of these supports.  

“The reasons are open to debate,” Kyle says. “What we know is that suicide doesn’t discriminate by social class. You may be more likely to think about committing suicide if you’re poor, because poverty is a psychological stressor. But no correlation has been shown between economic class and actually going through with suicide.”

Conventional belief notwithstanding, stress alone rarely precipitates suicide. Whatever the immediate trigger, “suicide almost always happens in the context of a mental illness, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed,” says Kyle. “Relentless bullying can be a stressor that leads to suicidal thoughts. But absent an underlying mental disorder, such as emotional disturbance, substance abuse, or disruptive behavior, most young people will not commit suicide.”

But can suicide be prevented? Can a person intent on ending his or her own life be dissuaded from doing so?

Absolutely. “School counselors should be vigilant to the signs of suicidal intent within the student population and be prepared to intervene if necessary,” Kyle says. Those signs may include utterances (“I hope I don’t wake up tomorrow”), access to weapons or poisons, or evidence of earlier attempts. Mental health screenings can help identify at-risk youth, and group-based skills programs can teach students how to monitor, interpret, and regulate emotional reactions within themselves that may put them at risk.

The problem is that misconceptions among health-care providers often create a barrier to intervention. “Many professionals believe that asking about suicide can precipitate it,” Kyle says. “Not only is that notion false, but also it often prevents counselors from intervening to help a student in trouble.” Conversely, many students labor under the misapprehension that there is no one capable of understanding what they’re feeling. “Those who do talk to a skilled professional invariably report feeling better for it,” continues Kyle.

Her immersion in the details of suicide belies an upbeat manner and outlook on life. “You definitely need a dark sense of humor to do this work,” she says. “It also helps to love working with adolescents and being around them. My goal is to get them to focus not on the dying, but on the living—and to remind them that the world is a great place to be.”

For more about Queens College visit http://www.qc.cuny.edu/Pages/default.aspx 

Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
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Maria Matteo
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