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Adolescents’ Need to Belong: Implications

June 13, 2019

I live in Colorado, which has just been named by US News and World Report as the nation’s most desirable state in which to live, partly due to the grandeur of its vistas and its natural beauty. Colorado has many desirable qualities, but our rate of teenage suicide is nearly twice the national average. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Colorado for those aged 10 to 24.

Suicide Theory

Prof. Thomas Joiner (Florida State U.), theorist and author, espouses the Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicide (ITPS, 2009) addressing previously unexplained components of suicidal behavior. He posits suicidal behavior as affected by three factors, called constructs. The first two constructs, thwarted belonging and perceived burdensomeness, combine to produce suicidal desire. Thwarted belonging occurs when an individual’s need to belong is unmet. Perceived burdensomeness is the belief that one is such a burden on others that “my death is worth more than my life.”

According to Joiner, suicidal desire is not sufficient to propel an individual into suicidal behavior. One must also become capable of performing such behavior, which Joiner refers to as “acquired capability” (the third construct). Desensitizing oneself to the physically painful and frightening aspects of death can result in acquiring the capability to end one’s life. Engaging in increasingly risky abuse of substances is an example of acquired capability.

According to Joiner, when suicidal desire (arising from thwarted belonging and perceived burdensomeness) combines with acquired capability, the risk of suicide increases.

Exploring Adolescents’ Need to Belong

Because early studies incorporating the ITPS had not been tested with diverse populations, I decided, for my doctoral dissertation, to look closely at the ITPS and its value regarding suicide risk. Since a proper examination of all three ITPS constructs was beyond the scope of my research, I explored one construct, thwarted belonging, as it applied to adolescents. My purpose was to determine the ways in which a sense of belonging (the opposite of thwarted belonging) was meaningful for adolescents. A perspective including ethnic and gender differences was included.

Findings

Using secondary data from the National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement (N = 10, 148), I identified five aspects which promote a sense of belonging for youth ages 13-18. In order of statistical significance, they were sense-of-belonging-to one’s family, one’s mother, one’s father, one’s school, and one’s faith community.  Surprisingly, I found no statistically significant differences regarding gender: the sense of belonging was equally important to females and males. The mean score for females was higher than the mean score for males, but not significantly so.

A statistically significant difference was found among the three ethnic groups that I studied (African-American, Hispanic, and White). Hispanic youth felt most strongly the sense of belonging to their various entities, while that sense was weakest among African American youth.

Within the adolescent population, I analyzed two age groups: youths 13-15 and youths 16-18. I found a statistically significant difference here: the older youth experienced a stronger sense of belonging. An unexpected finding was the statistically significant aspects of ethnicity and gender. Hispanic females and males respectively had the strongest sense of belonging; next were White males, then White females, then African American females; and African American males experienced the lowest sense of belonging.

Why is this important?

Working with youths on the issue of a fulfilled sense-of-belonging can evidently have an impact on preventing suicide. Perhaps in Colorado there are special factors that work against a strong sense of belonging to families, parents, schools, and faith-based communities. As a society, and as parents and clinicians, we need to know the answers and do a better job of giving young people what they need.

As a clinical social worker, to what extent do you regard adolescent clients in terms of their ethnicity, gender, age group, and sense of belonging? Are you aware of their possible thwarted sense-of-belonging and how it impacts suicidal ideation? Let’s talk about it!


Written By:

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Shannon Harrison, Ph.D, LCSW

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