Bringing sociology into the efforts to prevent youth suicide

By David Mercer

Sociologist Anna Mueller studies the social roots of psychological problems among youth, and how intervening in those social roots can be helpful in suicide prevention.

Mueller, an assistant professor in Comparative Human Development, focuses on how relationships and social contexts influence adolescent health. She and Seth Abrutyn, a colleague at the University of British Columbia, are looking specifically at youth suicide in a place they call Poplar Grove. 

(They do not disclose the actual identity in order to protect the privacy of people who have worked with them.)

Mueller, who joined the University of Chicago in 2015, and Abrutyn have concentrated much of their research on the affluent community of about 45,000 residents, and in particular, on the main high school in the community with about 2,000 students where, according to Mueller, in multiple years the community has lost three kids in less than 12 months.

Broadly, their research seeks to understand why youth turn to suicide in Poplar Grove in such high numbers. In Poplar Grove, Mueller said, there are “social factors that are making kids disproportionately miserable and stressed out, and lacking hope about their future.” There are also challenges associated with growing up around so much suicide.

She describes the residents of the town as tightly connected, a factor that leads many people to worry about the spread of gossip. Poplar Grove also has a strong culture of academic excellence and pressure to succeed. These factors, combined with the prevalent mental health stigma, Mueller and Abrutyn have found, lead both children and parents to fear failure and the judgment of those around them and ultimately suppress mental health help-seeking.

Mueller and Abrutyn used data from interviews  with minors, young adults, mental health workers, and parents. For an earlier, related study, they incorporated data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that led them to conclude that suicide attempts by role models do trigger suicidal thoughts among others.

“We have found that exposure to suicide can change whether youth see suicide as a justifiable action that someone might do to escape,” Mueller said.

Mueller and Abrutyn drew on these findings in writing a 2016 paper published in the American Sociological Review. The paper offered a new sociological theory of suicide. Much of sociology has focused on testing Emile Durkheim’s – a founding scholar of both sociology and suicidology – famous thesis that social isolation causes suicide, while neglecting other ways that social relationships and communities can shape suicide risk. Such as through the dense social networks found in Poplar Grove. Mueller and Abrutyn also outlined the social psychological pathways through which communities – like Poplar Grove – can come to shape an individual’s vulnerability to suicide and offer thoughts on how their theory compliments psychological theories of suicide.

That paper, “Adolescents under Pressure: A New Durkheimian Framework for Understanding Adolescent Suicide in a Cohesive Community,” was recognized for its contributions to scholarly knowledge  by the American Sociological Association.

The publication of the paper and its reception were watershed moments for Mueller.

“In many ways, it really was throwing down the gauntlet to sociologists. We need to do more than just consider the role of social isolation in suicide,” she says. “And while I’m a fan of Durkheim, I also think we need to go beyond him. Sociology could have a lot to offer the field of suicide prevention if we brought our entire toolkit to bear on the problem.”

That potential for such impact motivates Mueller. She sees that sociologists could be much more engaged across the discussion about why people die by suicide and believes that without such participation, the complexities of how social connections matter to suicide are overlooked.

“It’s challenging to translate my insights to a clinical psychology audience,” she said, because sociology doesn’t fit neatly into that traditional medical and mental-health model that dominates the study of suicide. Her own discipline can be somewhat isolationist, contributing to the problem, she said.

Mueller said, though, that she has found researchers across that divide who’ve been willing to engage. “Those cross-disciplinary conversations have been very helpful,” she said. She continues to work for sociologists to have a place in discussions about the drivers behind suicide and the development of means to prevent it.

Mueller has been awarded a seed grant from the division’s new Social Sciences Research Center to expand the Poplar Grove study to multiple sites in order to test the generalizability of the prior findings and evaluate additional theoretical propositions suggested by past work.

“My goal is to recruit five communities that have substantial youth mental health problems, then pair with five similar communities that don’t have the same mental health problems,” she said.