Teen Suicide Attempts Linked to Body Weight and Body Image

Teenagers who are overweight, or believe they are, appear to be at higher risk of suicide, according to a new study published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health. This was found to be the same for girls and boys.

While the research results certainly can’t be said to be reliably predictive of any one teenager’s suicide risk, the study does help to support the view that teenagers with real or perceived weight problems should be particularly assessed for depression and suicidal thoughts – and that all teens should ideally be screened. Teenagers with depression and/or suicidal thoughts should then be referred for psychotherapy geared to these issues, and medically evaluated for possibly discernible physiological causes and treatments. The study included 14,000 US high school students, their body mass indexes (BMI) and beliefs concerning whether of not they are overweight, along with the rate of suicide attempts within the group. The analyses controlled for demographics and possible confounding variables.

Monica Swahn, an associate dean for research at the College of Health and Human Sciences and an associate professor in the Institute of Public Health at Georgia State University was the lead researcher. “We cannot only focus prevention strategies on those who are overweight and who are concerned about their weight, but we also need to include youth who feel that they are overweight even though they may not be,” Swahn said in a news release.

Swahn points out that the rate of teen obesity in the US is growing and reminds us of the importance of self-image in the adolescent years. Development of the adolescent is more reliant on positive acceptance by peers than at any other time of life. That development is also more reliant on peers than on family, teachers or others. News of the link between overweight, perceived overweight and suicide may be particularly important information in modernized cultures where the mass media actively promotes being thin as hip, fashionable or, otherwise, as healthy and physically fit – sometimes even as an indication of personal virtuosity. Attention to how we communicate concerns about teenagers’ body weight and body image, and promote fitness and positive body image, is merited.

This is a challenging prospect since we don’t want to inadvertently promote being overweight among teens. It’s probably a task best achieved by a well-considered, multi-pronged public education initiative that involves teens, parents, schools, health providers, government and media. In the meantime, personal mindfulness of our messages to teens about weight and the factors that support fitness, health and beauty are in order. Most certainly called for is provision of opportunity and encouragement for teen participation in any of the numerous ways of achieving self-esteem not based on image, such as social functions, arts, sports, and so on.


Preidt, Robert. Worries about weight are tied to teen suicide tries, Center for the Advancement of Health. News release to HealthDay, May 18, 2009, id=626771, published online in HONnews

Swahn, Monica H., Reynolds, Melissa Tice, C. Miranda-Pierangeli, Maria, Jones, Courtney R. and Jones, India R. Perceived overweight, BMI, and risk for suicide attempts: Findings from the 2007 youth risk behavior survey. Journal of Adolescent Health. Society for Adolescent Medicine Published by Elsevier Inc. May 18, 2009

© Copyright 2009 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Joanna


    May 30th, 2009 at 8:20 PM

    Overweight teenagers face a lot of pressure from their peers. Acceptance from their peer group matters a lot to teenagers. Parents can ease their anguish by honing their talents. Doing a sport along with your child can be very encouraging. Children with weight issues are petrified of the embarrassment while learning a sport. Help them by learning with them. It can be the biggest motivation for them.

  • Sarah


    May 30th, 2009 at 9:01 PM

    I still remember my sister’s suicide attempt after a professor at college took a dig at her while explaining the importance of bmi. It is sad how education doesnt make one a better person. We are all in the business of motivation. Starting with oneself can help us understand and deal well with others.

  • Jake


    May 31st, 2009 at 7:57 PM

    I have always been chubby since birth. I try hard to exercise and play sports. Whatever I do I can never become like my best friend who I call the “Ab king”. The good thing is I have a good set of friends who like me for me. I think one needs to be mature enough to understand that people get attracted to a person’s personality more often than their physique and looks.

  • Melinda


    June 1st, 2009 at 5:40 AM

    I have no doubts that weight issues are very big on the minds of teens and that this can play a large role in theri suicide rates. But how do you really know that is what it is all about? What if they are getting teased and bullied because they are heavy and this ultimate dismissal by their peers is what drives them to commit suicide? Then you are looking at an entirely different matter altogether.

  • Carol


    June 2nd, 2009 at 3:57 AM

    No wonder body image is so important. We are all told that the ideal size is a size 2 today. That is not possible for very many of us to achieve and that must be overwhelming to deal with as a teen. I have come to the realization as an adult that this is not for me and that I will never be built that way but teen girls are still trying to fit in that mold and I can easily see how they may become discouraged enough with their efforts to seek another way out.

  • Suzie


    June 3rd, 2009 at 2:50 AM

    It doesn’t help matters much when you have ignorant people making fun of overweight teens or joking around with them,.wether friends or not friends.. besides, i think it very rude for friends to even comment or joke about their overweight friends weight.

  • Roger


    June 3rd, 2009 at 3:45 AM

    A kid in my son’s school, a seventh grader mind you, committed suicide just last year, and in the note he left he said he was tired of being called a fatty by his classmates day in and day out. It wore him down. This really makes you stop and take notice of the messages that all of us send our own kids from time to time.

  • Angela


    June 4th, 2009 at 3:01 AM

    I wish these teens would look to celebrities like Beyonce, or Kim Kardashian. They are not a size 3 or 4, they have curves and are beautiful. Teens need to realize they are beautiful on the inside and I know it’s hard for them to see, but they do need friends who will not put them down and love them and accept them for who they are. If they have friends badgering them about their weight, I don’ t consider them as friends.

  • Heidi


    June 7th, 2009 at 5:02 PM

    Unforunately that is not what is celebrated these days. To be thin is to be in and that is the bottom line. I am not saying that is what I believe but I think that most of the mainstream society does.

  • sarah


    June 15th, 2009 at 2:32 AM

    I wish that the teens that are facing this problem would realize that it is the inside that their true friends love, not the outside. I know this is easy for an adult to say because many teens feel they must look a certain way to get that attention from a boy they have a crush on or just to feel accepted, but when it comes down to it, their real friends are the only ones who count besides themselves.

  • stacia


    June 18th, 2009 at 12:15 PM

    its so sad that these teens that are a little overweight or even not overweight listen to such people who insult or bring them down. I’m sure when you are younger you care what people think, but to let them break you down and commit possible suicide is so sad.

  • Bella


    June 23rd, 2009 at 1:59 AM

    if only teens would realize there’s so much more that’s important than their weight. Their families and TRUE friends are the only ones that matter, not their weight. Suicide is not the answer, it’s an escape and I wish more would wake up and get the help an realize this.

  • Valerie


    June 24th, 2009 at 3:05 AM

    It seems one’s image is starting as such an early age and that is so disturbing. Preteens are way to young to even get depressed and consider suicide. They’ve not grown up yet and their bodies are still changing. They need the education to help them understand they have the will and ability to do what they put their minds to and not worry about what anyone else says, regardless of what shape their body is in.

  • angel


    October 12th, 2009 at 8:16 AM

    I have dealt with bodyu image before and still do and i can relate so much becaus ei have had suicide attempts myself luckily im over that now!

  • cat


    November 2nd, 2009 at 3:17 AM

    im a teen. i have several experiances with suicide attempts and none of these were because on body images but what people did/thought of me. that really made me very emotional and i acted alot and no one noticed until my 2 bestfriends saw what was going on and i would not be here without them. so if the media wouldnt get to you something else is bound to and that can contrabute alot to it. im just lucky that i have my 2 friends to keep me proper

  • rj


    March 27th, 2013 at 5:03 PM

    i glad that you are alive and that you had those 2 friends were by your side the whole time

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