Adolescent girls who view themselves as too fat may display more suicidal behaviors than those who are actually overweight, according to a study by Inas Rashad, an assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University.
Although studies have shown a link between obesity, depressive disorders and suicidal behaviors, Rashad and Dhaval Dave of Bentley University, analyze these indicators in conjunction with an individual's perception of their weight. The study, which was accepted for publication in February, will be published in Social Science and Medicine.
"Both obesity and suicide have been highlighted by the Surgeon General as areas of focus for adolescents and areas of great concern," Rashad said. "We find that the role perception has independently of actual overweight status is an important one, which has implications in terms of any solutions to the obesity epidemic that are put forth."
The researchers utilized data from 1999 to 2007 from the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System, which indicated that 17 percent of high school students have seriously considered committing suicide. The data were used to not only investigate whether overweight status or perception are causal factors affecting suicidal thoughts and attempts among high school students, but also to estimate the potential economic costs.
"If being overweight not only imposes the usual health care and labor market costs, but also increases the risk of suicide, we need to take these costs into account when offering solutions," Rashad said.
The study revealed that body dissatisfaction had a strong impact on all suicidal behaviors for girls and was generally insignificant for males. For instance, any perception of being overweight by girls raised the probability of suicidal thoughts by 5.6 percent, the probability of a suicide attempts by 3.2 percent, and the probability of an injury causing suicide attempts by 0.6 percent. The researchers also state that the risk of suicide by adolescent females could potentially add about $280 to $350 million to the costs of adolescent obesity, which includes the direct cost of illnesses and associated health care and indirect costs such as productivity losses, reduced income and premature mortality.
Rashad hopes more research will be done on the topic, but she recommends efforts aimed at preventing youth suicides focus on educating youths and fostering healthy attitudes with regard to weight.
"The prevalence of body dissatisfaction, among special populations of youths such as non-black girls, is significantly higher than the general youth population, even when the underlying weight is in a healthy range," Rashad said. "Interventions that identify and assist these youths and educate them regarding a healthy body image will succeed in lowering suicide attempts."
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