Understanding attitudes to suicide and literacy to suicide in young people

Evaluating suicide attitudes and suicide literacy in adolescents

by Alison Calear, Alyssa Morse, Helen Christensen, Sonia Mccalluma, Aliza Werner-Seidler, Rebecca Alexander, and Philip Batterham

Published 8 July 2023

What's the issue?

Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people in Australia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare states that suicide accounts for 39% of deaths for young adults aged 18-24 years.

An estimated one-third of young people generally do not seek help independently for suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

The barriers to seeking help for young people are closely related to the stigma surrounding mental health concerns, suicide, and health literacy.

No research on suicide stigma and suicide literacy in young people has previously been undertaken in Australia.

What was done?

Researchers sought to assess the level of suicide literacy and understand attitudes towards suicide in young people. To achieve this, the researchers used a sample of 1019 adolescents (58.7% female, 40.4% male, 0.9% other) aged between 11 and 17 years as part of the Sources of Strength Australia Project (Calear et al., 2016). *

Researchers gave the sample of young people a survey consisting of questions from four different measurement scales to determine:

  • Suicide literacy level
  • Suicide attitudes
  • Current psychological distress and suicidal ideation (thoughts).

Survey results were analysed through four multivariate linear regression models to estimate the relationship between the variables.

What was found?

Researchers found the following results:

  • Younger age was associated with lower levels of suicide literacy and higher levels of stigma and glorification of suicide
  • Males and people who spoke languages other than English at home had lower levels of suicide literacy and higher levels of suicide stigma. They were less likely to understand the links between suicide and isolation or depression
  • Previous exposure to suicide, such as to a friend attempting or dying by suicide, was associated with higher literacy and lower levels of stigma
  • One-fifth of the participants agreed that people who die by suicide are stupid, irresponsible, cowardly, strong, or brave. These types of attitudes may lead to reduced help-seeking behaviours
  • The most consistent relationships were found between low suicide stigma, high suicide literacy and high attribution of suicide to isolation or depression
  • Suicide glorification was the highest in genders other than male or female.

Why are findings important?

Understanding attitudes to suicide and literacy levels in young people can help develop targeted awareness campaigns focusing on knowledge gaps and correct beliefs about suicide. Improving literacy and reducing stigma can encourage help-seeking behaviours.

The researchers also suggest further studies better to understand the glorification of suicide in young people.

* The Sources of Strength Australia Project was a randomised controlled trial designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the Sources of Strength suicide prevention program in increasing help-seeking intentions in adolescents.