Kids with poor grades more likely to attempt suicide as adults

A new study finds an unexplained connection between poor school performance and suicide attempts and self-harm in later life, writes Anna Kosmynina.

The reason for the connection between poor grades and school and adult suicide attempts is still unclear.
The reason for the connection between poor grades and school and adult suicide attempts is still unclear.
RubberBall / Getty

People who did poorly at school are almost five times more likely than those who did well to attempt suicide up to middle age, according to an international study.

The authors followed over 26,000 Swedish people right up until age 46 and found hospitalisation due to suicide attempts and self-harm was, other things being equal, nearly five times more common for people who were in the bottom quarter of their year than those in the top.

“This is a highly elevated risk, and it is remarkable that it reaches far into adulthood,” says lead author Dr. Alma Sorberg Wallin of Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet.

The authors say it isn’t clear if people attempted suicide because they’d done poorly in school, or if poor performance was a sign of vulnerability.

The study, published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, looked at data on a variety of factors linked to suicide, including IQ, grade point average (GPA), psychiatric disorders, parental well-being, socioeconomic status and gender.

Researchers previously thought intelligence levels may help explain both low GPAs and high suicide rates. But according to Associate Professor Alexandra Martiniuk of the University of Sydney, the study shows “grades are a better predictor of suicide attempts than IQ – though of course IQ predicts, to some extent, having good grades.”

Martiniuk explained to the Australian Science Media Centre that the large number of people and quality of the data make the study strong, but warns that it can’t show us “why the relationship between school grades and suicide attempts exists, and there is little existing research that can provide an answer.”

She suggests there could be a few reasons for the link - better grades could lead to further education and eventually being better off and having more control over one’s life.

“Alternatively, it could be that characteristics in childhood - such as impulsivity or behaviour challenges - are associated with suicidality, and these characteristics are likely to lead to poor school grades.”

The study authors note only severe suicide attempts and self-harm events requiring hospital care were included. No data were available on less severe mental health issues in childhood or adolescence, which might also dampen school performance, they say.

“Doing poorly in school typically pummels one’s self-esteem and this could also increase risk of suicidality,” Martiniuk continues.

Fortunately, there may be some countermeasures we can take even though we don’t yet know the specific reasons for the link.

Martiniuk explains that programs “to improve social and emotional abilities in children can increase academic performance and lower emotional distress.”

“Suicide prevention programming supporting youth as well as adults who have or had low GPA is also likely to be useful,” she concludes.

Prepared by Australian Science Media Centre and used here with permission.

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