Abstract: Suicidal Ideation Among Alternative High School Students: The Impact of Student Demographics, External Stressors, and School Experience (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Suicidal Ideation Among Alternative High School Students: The Impact of Student Demographics, External Stressors, and School Experience

Sunday, January 20, 2019: 11:15 AM
Union Square 18 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Hannah Szlyk, MSSW, PhD Candidate, University of Texas at Austin, Aust, TX

In the United States, suicide, or self-directed violence, is an ongoing issue for youth. The risk factors for youth suicidality overlap with those which contribute to high school dropout, including having a minority identity, exposure to discrimination, and stressful live events. Alternative high schools are environments which address both academic performance and student emotional health among vulnerable students. Research suggests that school-based social resources may reduce student suicidal ideation and related behavior. Informed by the stress buffering model, this study aimed to examine the impact of student demographics, external stressors, and positive school experience on suicide risk among minority and underserved students enrolled in an alternative education public high school.


As part of a mixed methods study, a sample of high school students (N=103) at an alternative high school completed a one-time survey. The school is in the southwestern region of the U.S. and uses a solution-focused approach to teaching. Student participants were between the ages of 15 to 20 years old and had to be enrolled to participate in the study. Fifty one percent of the participants were female. Over half of the participants identified ethnically as Hispanic or Latino (53.4%) and most participants identified racially as White (61.2%). Approximately 59% of students identified as heterosexual. The questionnaire included the domains of: student demographics, suicidal ideation, recent life events, perceived discrimination, and school experience and belonging.

Demographics for the entire sample were summarized with descriptive statistics. Correlation analyses demonstrated the strength and direction of associations between the independent variables and the dependent variable of suicidal ideation. Predictors of suicidal ideation were determined using hierarchical linear regression.


Bivariate correlation revealed both significant positive and negative associations between suicidal ideation and student characteristics and the psychosocial domains. Student perceived discrimination and non-heterosexual identity both has positive, significant associations with higher scores on the suicidal ideation scale.  An age of 18 years was associated with lower reporting of suicidal ideation. Results of hierarchical linear regression indicated that being male, non-heterosexual, white, and/or exposure to discrimination were associated with greater student reporting of suicidal ideation. Controlling for student demographics and external stressors (recent life events and discrimination), positive school experience was associated with a lower reporting of suicidal ideation (b=-.55, p<.01) and explained 7% of the variance, for a total of 43% of variance explained in the third model.


Study results support the growing literature on the risk of suicidality among sexual minority youth and youth who experience perceived discrimination. Some of the findings which contrast national trends (i.e. greater reporting of suicidal ideation among male and white students) may speak to the uniqueness of the alternative high school sample, and the plurality of participants’ racial and ethnicity identity. Results also suggest that positive school experiences may buffer the impact of external stressors on suicidal ideation among a vulnerable student population. This study’s findings have future implications for interventions for youth suicidality that emphasize school experience and belonging, especially among underserved and minority students.