Shippensburg University
Psychology Department

Psi High Newsletter

October, 2003
Volume 28, No. 1

Are peer helpers ready to prevent suicide?

Researchers find room for improvement

Many high schools have peer helper programs in which student volunteers learn skills relevant to developing positive relationships and facilitating adaptive problem solving. Since difficulties lead some adolescents to thoughts of suicide, there is a question as to how prepared peers helpers are with regard to suicide prevention. At five high schools on Victoria Island in British Columbia, Canada, Carol Stuart, Judith Waalen, and Echo Haelstromm investigated the possibility of assisting peer helpers in becoming better prepared to prevent suicide (Many Helping Hearts: An evaluation of peer gatekeeper training in suicide risk assessment, Death Studies, 27, 321-333, 2003).
Just as previous researchers have demonstrated with other peer helper programs, Carol Stuart and her colleagues found that about half of the individuals serving as peer helpers knew someone who became suicidal. Consequently, assisting peer helpers with developing appropriate suicide prevention knowledge and skills has the potential to increase the number of suicidal adolescents who receive help. The authors said their objective was to increase the willingness of peer helpers to seek out classmates who are feeling angry and/or isolated, assess their suicide risk, and provide appropriate support.
With 65 peer helpers in five high schools, the researchers conducted two half-day training sessions. Topics included listening skills (in which all of the participants already had been trained), setting boundaries, crisis theory, clues to suicide, assessment of suicide risk, and community resources.
Prior to the training, at the conclusion of training, and three months after the training, the investigators assessed the suicide prevention knowledge, skills, and attitudes of the participants. To judge knowledge, the researchers constructed a 10-item test. They assessed skill at evaluating possible responses in situations involving the potential for suicide by using a modified version of the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory, and they included opportunities for participants to write responses to specific scenarios involving the possibility of suicide. To measure attitudes toward intervening with suicidal individuals, they used items from the Suicide Intervention Questionnaire.
For both knowledge and evaluation skills, scores were significantly higher at the end of training than before, with no significant differences between the posttraining scores and those achieved three months later. Positive attitudes about intervening with suicidal individuals showed a significant increase after training, with the follow-up scores being between the pre- and posttraining levels and significantly different from both. On two open-ended items for which exploration of suicidal thoughts was appropriate, 6-12% of the peer helpers gave such responses before training and 32-46% did so after training. With two open-ended items for which reflection of feelings was appropriate, 15-23% of the participants included reflections before training and 41-50% offered such responses after training.
The study demonstrated that two half-day training sessions can increase average suicide prevention performance ratings of peer helpers. But the findings also identified challenges. One difficulty has to do with the general preparation peer helpers. Despite that fact that all of the participants had been previously trained to reflect feelings, on the pretest more than three-fourths failed to do so when given appropriate opportunities. The other problematic area is the adequacy of specific suicide prevention training. Immediately after two half-day workshops, 50% or more of the students failed to explore suicidal thoughts and failed to reflect feelings when given opportunities to do so.
The study highlighted the fact that volunteer peer helpers can be a valuable resource in suicide prevention efforts. The findings also documented that such helpers need adequate training and supervision if they are to fulfill their mission.

Should sports journalists use the vocabulary of war journalists?

Some fans believe they should

In light of terrorist activities and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, some sports fans and sports journalists have called for a decrease in the use of war terminology when discussing sporting events. Examples of such phrasing include bomb, battle, slaughter, crash and burn, warriors, and battles in the trenches. What do fans think of such terms? That was a question investigated by Shippensburg University professor Jamonn Campbell and his colleagues (Christian End, Jeffrey Kretschmar, Jamonn Campbell, David Mueller, and Beth Dietz-Uhler, Sport fans’ attitudes toward war analogies as descriptors for sport, Journal of Sport Behavior, in press).
The researchers compared fans having strong emotional connections to certain teams with fans who did not have such strong ties. When asked about using war terms to describe sporting events, the fans with strong connections to teams were significantly more approving of such terms than were fans who did not have strong connections to specific teams. Whether the language of war is appropriate to describe sports seems to be an issue on which many fans disagree.

When are teenagers at risk for substance use?

Researchers identify several possibilities

Most high school seniors have used alcohol or other drugs. A 2001 survey revealed that 80% had drunk alcohol, 65% had smoked cigarettes, 23% had used marijuana, and 10% had experienced the effects of cocaine. Other studies have documented difficulties associated with substance use, including health problems, emotional difficulties, lowered social skills, and poor work and school performance. In order to prevent or ameliorate such problems, it can be helpful to know conditions that tend to be associated with substance use. As a way of investigating those factors, Miguel Diego, Tiffany Field, and Christopher Sanders surveyed 89 seniors at a suburban high school in Florida (Academic performance, popularity, and depression predict adolescent substance use, Adolescence, 38, 35-42, 2003). The students reported on the nature and frequency of their substance use, how popular they believed themselves to be, their grade point average, and (on the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale) how depressed they were.
The researchers found that self-reports of low grade point averages, high popularity, and depression were significantly associated with cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and marijuana smoking. Like the use of those drugs, use of cocaine was associated with low grade point average. Unlike the other drugs, though, cocaine use was associated with low popularity and was unrelated to depression. The authors noted that the lower popularity associated with cocaine use was consistent with research that has shown students who use “hard drugs” tend to be less socially skilled than their peers.
Miguel Diego and his colleagues concluded that their results and other investigations support the idea that depression is both a risk factor for becoming involved with alcohol and other drugs, as well as being a consequence of substance use. They also interpreted their findings to support the idea that use of cigarettes and alcohol can lead to marijuana smoking, and that marijuana smoking can lead to cocaine use.

What encourages adolescents to smoke?

Many have parents who smoke

Cigarette smoking has been recognized as the number one cause of preventable premature deaths in the United States. Despite that fact, rates of adolescent smoking have been increasing in recent years. As noted in the preceding article, researchers are interested in discovering factors that could be addressed in an effort to prevent or treat smoking. Julie Vogel, David Hurford, Janet Smith, and Amy Kay Cole surveyed 82 students enrolled in a Kansas high school, as well as 16 teenagers enrolled at a college in the community (The relationship between depression and smoking in adolescents, Adolescence, 38, 57-74, 2003). In addition to asking about smoking, the researchers’ questionnaire had items about family environment and academic performance. To measure depression and its characteristics, they used the Multiscore Depression Inventory.
With regard to aspects of low mood, smoking was significantly correlated with being withdrawn and feeling isolated (social introversion), and with reaching out for help from others and being disappointed in the response (instrumental helplessness). The latter variable also was associated with how long the participants had been smoking. Of the factors studied, though, parental smoking was the variable most highly correlated with both whether students smoked and years of smoking.
Other investigations have found that greater cigarette use in later years is associated with early onset of smoking. The study by Julie Vogel and her colleagues demonstrated that both smoking and starting to smoke at a younger age are strongly associated with having a parent who smokes. The authors suggested that one component of antismoking campaigns should be helping parents who smoke understand the influence such behavior is likely to have on their children.

Editor: Kenneth France, Ph.D.

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