Young people who have suicidal ideations (SI) are unlikely to seek help for a number of reasons. Research has shown that young adults with mental health problems such as depression or substance use issues may be concerned about the stigma associated with them and be reluctant to reach out to professionals or adults within their social network for assistance. For teens in high school, peer relationships influence their attitudes toward help seeking immensely. Teens that have accepting and supportive friends are more likely to share their burdens with adults than those who do not. Additionally, individuals with friends who have struggled themselves with mental health problems and SI are usually more willing to disclose their own SI than those individuals who do not personally know someone who has experienced similar difficulties. Another barrier to help seeking is trust. Teens who do not feel that their adult caregivers are trustworthy may avoid reaching out to other adults, such as teachers and medical professionals, in their time of need.
Karen Schmeelk-Cone of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York recognized this problem and along with her colleagues created three scales designed to measure Help Seeking Acceptability at School (HSA) and Adult Help for Suicidal Youth (AHSY) in over 6,000 teens from 22 high schools. An additional scale, the Reject Codes of Silence scale (RCS) was designed to identify how teens perceived the code of silence among peers. After evaluating the teens using all three scales, Schmeelk-Cone discovered that HSA revealed the strongest negative attitudes toward help seeking among the teens, demonstrating the importance of peer attitudes.
The teens that scored high on the HSA were also more likely to score high on the AHSY, which showed that they were less likely to share their SI concerns with adults if their peers had negative attitudes about help seeking. The researchers also found that the participants with the highest scores on all three scales had the poorest coping skills and were more likely to turn to negative strategies such as substance misuse to address their distress. Although these scales were only tested on adults and teens within a high school environment, the results provide evidence that these measures are useful in identifying barriers to help seeking for SI in teens. Schmeelk-Cone added, “These new scales can contribute to building needed models for understanding help-seeking processes among suicidal youth.”
Cone-Schmeelk, K., Pisani, A. R., Petrova, M., Wyman, P. A. (2012). Three scales assessing high school students’ attitudes and perceived norms about seeking adult help for distress and suicide concerns. Suicide & Life Threatening Behavior, 42.2, 157-172.
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