Hidden danger: Most young people reporting suicidal thoughts only display mild mental distress

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — When it comes to mental health awareness, it might seem reasonable that a lot of attention focuses on people at high risk for suicide. Unfortunately, a recent study finds many young people who consider harming themselves are not showing signs of mental distress.

The study in the journal BMJ Open finds the majority of young people who have suicidal thoughts fall into the low to no-risk range.

“It appears that self-harm and suicidal thinking among young people dramatically increases well within the normal or non-clinical range of mental distress,” Professor Peter Jones from Cambridge University says in a media release.

CMD levels and suicidal thoughts

Cambridge researchers add there is an increased amount of stress among young people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In two separate studies, over 3,400 participants between ages 14 and 24 had their common mental distress (CMD) levels analyzed.

The data reveals young people experiencing severe mental distress had the highest risk of suicide. But this only makes up a small portion of the group. Researchers say 78 and 76 percent of the subjects experiencing suicidal thoughts have only mild or moderate CMD levels, respectively. In the second study, those rates were both above 65 percent.

“Our findings help explain why research focusing on high-risk subjects has yet to translate into useful clinical tools for predicting suicide risk,” Jones explains. “Self-harm and suicidal thoughts merit a swift response even if they occur without further evidence of a psychiatric disorder.”

A healthy body makes a healthy mind

The authors say their results show why improving the public’s overall health benefits individuals who aren’t identified as a mental health risk.

“It is well known that for many physical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, small improvements in the risks of the overall population translate into more lives saved, rather than focusing only on those at extremely high risk,” says Jones.

Jones and his team say one thing that can help young people improve their wellbeing is technology. The popularity of digital devices is an opportunity for companies to promote mental health awareness. Such campaigns promote “priority beyond profit,” the authors say.

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