40 percent of youth who attempt suicide have tried more than once. (Photo: Colourbox)

Stress-coping strategies can save teens from becoming suicidal

A clear link between suicide attempts and task-oriented coping was found in a new study that followed suicidal and nonsuicidal teenagers into early adulthood.

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Countries like Norway, Denmark and Sweden score consistently high on measures of life satisfaction and happiness, but numerous studies show that these countries also have relatively high suicide rates.

It is estimated that for every suicide among youths, there are approximately ten attempted ones.

There are between 500 and 600 known suicides per year in Norway, and in 2010 about 70 of these were in the ages of 15-24.

Latha Nrugham at the National Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention and her colleagues studied suicidal behaviour in this age group and they found a clear link between task-oriented coping and suicide attempts.

Latha Nrugham (Photo: UiB)

A total of 252 selectively sampled teens were followed for six years, starting when the mean age was 14 and ending when it was 20. Fifty-two of the respondents said they had attempted suicide once during this period while 23 said they had tried several times.

Stress-coping strategies

One simple definition has task-oriented coping as “the ability to effectively cope with stressors.”

“Task-oriented coping is about cognitive processing and is conceptually close to problem-solving and cognitive restructuring,” says Nrugham, adding that people who use task-oriented coping strategies “seek to alter situations and make themselves more flexible to adjustments.”

“Respondents with strong task-oriented skills were less likely to attempt suicide,” says Nrugham.

A task-oriented approach to involuntary unemployment could involve active job seeking, or perhaps enrolling in courses at a university to improve one’s employability.

Emotional coping, on the other hand, could be venting frustration and anger in emotional outbursts. Such behaviour might or might not reduce stress, but is either way unlikely to solve the underlying problem.

Depression’s crippling effect

Nrugham and her colleagues found that depression affected the way respondents coped with stressors.

“As the symptom load of depression increased, the use of the emotional coping trait also increased, whereas that of the task-oriented coping trait decreased,” she says.

Depressed teenagers, in other words, dealt with their problems in less effective ways and in some cases got further away from solving them.

Coping strategies change with age

The study also found that those who reported suicide attempts at age 14 got worse at task-oriented coping as they got older, while the opposite was true for non-suicidal teenagers.

This suggests that a healthy development of stress management was impaired for those who felt they had reasons to end their lives.

Learning to cope

The good news is that treatment can save them, or more specifically, equip them with the psychological tools they need to help themselves.

“Coping traits can be changed and improved,” says the researcher, adding that there are training programmes in which patients learn solution-focused and problem-solving coping strategies.

If this task-oriented mindset is internalised, it can 'protect' depressed and suicidal people from getting sucked into a vicious downward spiral of emotional despair and practical inaction.


Nrugham et al., Suicide Attempters and Repeaters: Depression and Coping: A Prospective Study of Early Adolescents Followed up as Young Adults, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2012

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