‘Teenagers Aren’t Meant to Die’

Nursing professor’s research focuses on preventing teenage suicides by reducing victimization

Behind only accidental deaths, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers, accounting for 6 percent of all teenage fatalities. Research by Nancy Pontes, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden, aims to illuminate and prevent the underlying factors that can lead to teen suicides. “For the most part, suicide is preventable,” she said. “We can do a lot to prevent it.”

An article Pontes and two coauthors published in the journal Nursing Research in spring 2020 contains a disturbing finding: suicide attempts with injuries requiring treatment by female teens rose 36 percent from 2009 to 2017. “It’s an alarming increase,” she said.

In previous studies, Pontes found that female bullying victimization has increased, and that females are more negatively affected by bullying than males, which may account for some of the increase in female suicide attempts. Pontes said bullying, both in person and over the internet, and other forms of victimization, such as sexual abuse and child abuse, are leading factors in motivating someone to try to take their life. Pontes’ goal is that her research can help schools and others to develop programs that will prevent suicide and the factors that lead to it. “My passion about this is that I really truly believe if our world could prevent victimization of children, we would see a dramatic decrease in deaths by suicide,” she said.

Pontes said research shows that middle schools and high schools with suicide prevention programs, as well as programs to decrease bullying, are effective in decreasing suicides by about 25 percent.

She said interventions by teachers, parents, and peers into bullying and other forms of victimization can be very effective in stopping someone from taking their life. “We know if there is a meaningful person in someone’s life to whom they feel connected, that relationship can be a preventive factor in suicide,” she said.

Pontes’ newest article, “Trends in Depressive Symptoms and Suicidality: Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2009–2017,” was coauthored with two contributing researchers: Cynthia Ayres, an associate professor of nursing at Rutgers–Camden, and a professor from Rowan University.

In evaluating surveys of 76,000 teens from the ages of 15–19, they found that although suicide attempts by females increased drastically, attempts by males decreased by 13 percent over the same period. However, although fewer males attempt suicide, they account for more deaths by suicide because they often choose methods such as hanging, shooting, or jumping from buildings that often result in death; females more commonly resort to taking pills or cutting their wrists, actions that often lead to injury, but not death.

Regardless of the method or the gender, Pontes, who has been studying ways to prevent teen suicide for five years and has published four papers on the subject, is committed to reducing the numbers of teens taking their lives. “Teenagers aren’t meant to die,” she said.

Posted in: 2020 Spring, On Campus

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