WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Teenagers with reading problems are at significantly higher risk for suicide and for dropping out of school than typical readers, according to a study by Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center researchers.
“In our study, poor readers were three times more likely than typical readers to consider or attempt suicide and six times more likely to drop out of school,” said lead author Stephanie Sergent Daniel, Ph.D. “Educators and parents should be aware of the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior among adolescents with reading problems.”
The results, reported today in the November issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities, are from a study of 188 students recruited from six public high schools at age 15. They were followed for a mean of 3.3 years.
Researchers initially screened 1,074 students and identified a sub-group willing to participate in the long-term study. From this group, they recruited a group of poor readers and a group of typical readers that were matched for gender and race.
Standard educational tests were used to measure single-word reading ability, one of several skills involved in reading. Students scoring in the lowest 18 percent were considered poor readers – a cutoff commonly used to diagnose dyslexia. In addition, each student and his primary caretaker were interviewed by master’s level trained research clinicians to assess psychiatric disorders and suicidal behaviors. The median length between interviews for students and parents was twelve months.
The follow-up interviews revealed that students with poor reading skills were more likely to experience suicidal thoughts or attempts and were more likely to drop out of school. In addition, suicidal thoughts or attempts and school drop-out were strongly associated with each other.
The researchers found that psychiatric disorders were also related to thoughts of suicide and to school drop-out, but that poor reading was a risk factor on its own.
“Significant reading difficulties were independent of, or over and beyond, the risk from the psychiatric conditions,” said Frank Wood, Ph.D., senior researcher. “Regardless of whether they have independent psychiatric disorders, these students begin to get depressed or suicidal in higher numbers than typical readers.”
Previous studies have suggested that youths with learning disabilities are at increased risk of suicidal behavior. However, few studies have examined whether reading difficulties specifically are associated with suicide or whether there is a relationship between suicidal tendencies and school drop-out.
In addition to this study involving public school students, the researchers also noted a high suicide rate in a group of 50 randomly selected students with reading disabilities that they followed for 25 years. Four of the students died by suicide, a rate much higher than found in the general population.
However, Daniel said, “It is important to note that a significant number of students with reading problems did not drop out of school or have thoughts of suicide.”
“More research is needed to determine which youths with poor reading might be most vulnerable to these outcomes and which factors might be associated with resilience in the face of the stresses of school problems and poor reading ability,” she said.
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health. The preliminary results from this research were presented in 2002 at the American Association of Suicidology in Bethesda, Md., and this is the first publication of the research.
Other co-researchers were Adam Walsh, M.S.W., David Goldston, Ph.D., Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D., and Beth Reboussin, Ph.D., all with Wake Forest Baptist at the time of the research.
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Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,187 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.