Reading Problems Linked to Suicidal Thoughts

April 12, 2002 -- Dyslexia is not just a reading problem. New research suggests that it may also be connected to a young person's thoughts about suicide.

Preliminary results of a new study, presented this week at the meeting of the American Association of Suicidology in Bethesda, Md., find that teenagers with dyslexia are more likely than normal readers to think about and attempt suicide.

Researchers enrolled 94 students who had reading problems and 94 similar subjects who were considered normal readers based on performance on a reading test taken at age 15.

The study found that 19 percent of students who were poor readers had a history of either suicidal thoughts or attempts compared to 5 percent of students who were normal readers. Researchers also found that kids with reading problems were 10 percent more likely than normal readers to drop out of school, and that suicidal thoughts were strongly related to dropout rates.

Suicide was the third leading cause of death in 1999 for those aged 15 to 24, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

"It's much more than a reading problem," says Dr. Theodore Petti, Arthur B. Richter professor of child psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. "These youngsters are certainly at risk for suicide."

A Vicious Cycle

Experts say the typical challenges of adolescence and young adulthood can be even more pronounced for those with learning or reading disabilities, largely due to the significant importance and influence of academics in adolescent life.

"[Poor academic performance] raises questions about if they are going to finish school or what they are going to do after they finish school — what kinds of jobs they are going to get," says David Goldston, lead researcher on the new study. Goldston is director of the child and adolescent mood disorders and suicidal behavior clinic at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

And poor performance in school because of a reading disability can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety that further serve to perpetuate poor performance, experts add.

"Some adolescents [with dyslexia] have difficulty expressing themselves and so they are made fun of and they start to withdraw and they don't keep up," says Petti. "It's a very negative cycle of failure after failure. It's not surprising for these individuals who have average or above-average intelligence to feel very frustrated because they are not able to read as well as they should be."

Help and Prevention

Experts say that one of the keys to combating the frustration and poor academic performance that result from reading problems is to recognize and identify possible problems as early as possible.

"We need to provide these youngsters early on with an awareness that they have a difficulty and provide them with some additional help to counter it," says Petti.

And experts agree that these efforts can extend beyond offering reading help.

"Prevention and intervention efforts for dyslexic youth should probably focus on or be aware of the psychological pressure that comes to these youths from the school experience," says Goldston.

"I am pleased that this [research] is bringing back the awareness that there is a cycle in academics [between performance and psychological effects] and that these are interacting factors that play on each other," adds Petti.

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