Primary Sources: What Leads Many Runaway and Homeless Youth to Harm Themselves or Consider Suicide?

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Photograph of a young woman sitting outdoors against a brick wall.

The Mediating Roles of Stress and Maladaptive Behaviors on Self-Harm and Suicide Attempts Among Runaway and Homeless Youth” (abstract). Amanda Moskowitz, Judith A. Stein & Marguerita Lightfoot. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 42, No. 7 (July 2013).

What it’s about: Researchers wanted to learn what leads many runaway and homeless youth to harm themselves or attempt suicide.  The researchers hypothesized that aspects of young people’s backgrounds lead to and combine with stress and problem behaviors, which in turn affect the likelihood of youths’ self-harm and suicide attempts. The study was based on interviews with 474 young people, ages 12 to 24, who were using drop-in centers or shelters in Los Angeles County.

In the study, background variables included gender, age, sexual minority status, parents’ drug-use history, and emotional distress. Problem behaviors included substance abuse, stealing, bullying and starting fights.

Why read it: As the authors of the study write, “It is abundantly clear, as evidenced by prior research, that the homeless and runaway youth population is at higher risk of suicidality and self-harm than housed youths.” This study tries to uncover further information about what leads to that risk, with the ultimate goal of preventing self-harm and suicide among runaway and homeless youth.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: The authors used something called the “stress process paradigm” to describe the relationships they found among background variables, stress and problem behaviors, and the ultimate outcomes of young people harming themselves or attempting suicide.

The researchers found that

  • Girls and young women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth were more likely than other youth to have harmed themselves and attempted suicide.
  • Younger participants reported more self-harming than older youth.
  • All the background factors studied seemed to lead to increased stress levels for young people.
  • Older youth, those whose parents had used drugs, and those with greater emotional distress were more likely than other youth to have drug problems.
  • Boys and young men, young youth, and those with greater emotional distress were more likely than other youth to do things like steal, bully, and get into fights.
  • Both young people with problem behaviors and those who had recently been under stress were more likely than other youth to harm themselves.
  • Young people who had recently been under stress were more likely than other youth to attempt suicide.

Based on their findings, the authors encourage mental health professionals who work with runaway and homeless youth to consider working to recognize and stop problem behaviors and help young people reduce and cope with stress.

Additional references: We’ve reported on an Iowa runaway and homeless youth program that prioritizes suicide prevention at its shelter and a Tennessee program that uses “neurofeedback” to help youth relax their brains.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB, or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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