By Hugh C. McBride
A staple of teen life for decades, summer jobs are credited with helping young people develop character, enhance their resumes, and acquire at least a semblance of financial acumen.
Researchers with the University of Iowa would like to add one more benefit to this list. Summer employment, they report, may actually save lives.
Social Integration Is Important
According to a March 26 article in The Daily Iowan (the university’s student newspaper), teenagers who have summer jobs are significantly less likely to commit suicide than are their unemployed peers.
“Summer employment is more of a deterrent [to teen suicide] than holding a job during the school year, attending church, participating in sports, or living in a two-parent home,” Daily Iowan reporter Tessa McLean wrote in reference to the results of a study that was led by UI associate professor Rob Baller and Kelly Richardson of the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“A lot of it is social integration,” Baller said in The Daily Iowan article. “Jobs that give people more exposure to others, especially where they can see friends, are better.”
More Self-Esteem, Less Isolation
A March 25 article on the ScienceDaily medical news website provided the following details about the UI study and its results:
• Baller and Richardson analyzed information about friendship networks of 2,000 students at 15 junior and senior high schools. These data had been collected between 1994 and 1996 during the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
• Influences on the likelihood that teens will attempt suicide include attempts by family members, friends, and friends of friends, as well as the occurrence of suicidal thoughts by the teens themselves.
• Additional risk factors for teen suicide include drinking large amounts of alcohol, engaging in physical fights, being obese, being homosexual, and being raped.
• Among adolescents with more of these risk factors, working a paid summer job 20 or more hours a week creates immunity against the friend-to-friend diffusion of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
• At-risk teens 16 or younger were found to reap the same suicide-prevention benefits by working just 10 hours a week during the summer.
“Summer employment is thought to be beneficial because it creates self-esteem while reducing isolation and substance abuse, and it does not conflict with school work in the way a job during the school year could,” Baller said in the ScienceDaily article.
A Leading Cause of Early Death
Teen suicide continues to be a significant problem in the United States. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) reports that suicide is the sixth leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the 5- to14-year-old age bracket, though within the 10-to-14 subcategory, it rises to the fourth leading cause. Among young people ages 15 to 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death (trailing only accidents and homicides).
Survey data that were collected by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicate that suicidal ideation remains pervasive among teenagers:
• Seventeen percent (just under one in five) of U.S. high school students had serious thoughts about suicide in the 12 months prior to their participation in the SAMHSA survey.
• Thirteen percent of U.S. high school students had made a suicide plan in the previous 12 months.
• Eight percent of U.S. high school students had attempted suicide in the year prior to the survey.
Teen girls attempt suicide three times more often than teen boys do – but because boys use more lethal methods (such as firearms, hanging, or jumping from heights instead of attempting to overdose on drugs or cutting themselves), many more teen boys actually “succeed” in killing themselves.
In addition to the risk factors cited in the University of Iowa study, SAMHSA reports that the majority of teen suicide attempts are made by young people who are depressed, suffering from bipolar disorder, or struggling with a substance abuse problem.
Preventing Teen Suicide
As the UI researchers indicated, the ability of a summer job to reduce the risk of teen suicide is likely not associated with the work itself, but with the personal connections and self-esteem enhancements that result from engaging in positive interactions with other people.
Teen depression and teen substance abuse, both of which are among the leading risk factors for teen suicide, can be isolating experiences that prompt affected young people to withdraw from family, friends, and activities that are likely to provide them with healthy interpersonal contact.
Though not always as easy to hide as depression or substance abuse, teen bipolar disorder can make it difficult for a young person to make the positive connections and develop the healthy coping skills that can help them deal with stresses and pressures without considering drastic options such as self-harm or suicide.
Even if they are not entertaining thoughts of suicide, teens who experience drastic mood swings or who begin to withdraw from family and friends need to be evaluated by a qualified medical professional in order to determine what, if any, intervention is needed to preclude or address a serious problem.
Holding down a summer job may be a sign that a teenager is not in immediate danger, but having a supportive network of friends and family members who are willing to intervene in times of crisis can make an even greater impact on the young person’s continued well-being.
If your teen doesn't work this summer, then a wilderness therapy program can offer a structured environment that promotes personal growth through a focus on insight-oriented experiences. Wilderness programs help teenagers address personal issues, achieve success in a safe environment, and develop their leadership potential. Learn more at Wilderness Programs Info.