Article Summary: Suicide risk in adolescents with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

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This study looks at suicidal ideation and serious suicide attempts among adolescents with high-functioning FASD, between 13-18 years old, and compares the prevalence rates of suicidal ideation among typically developing adolescents.

Statistics among the general population

  • 17.2% of typically developing adolescents had thought about suicide in the last year
  • 2.4% of adolescents in the general population attempted suicide at least once in the past year
  • 1.5% of typically developing males attempted suicide
  • 3.2% of typically developing females attempted suicide

 Results for individuals with FASD

  • 35.2% of participants experienced suicidal ideation (twice the rate of the general population)
  • 13.0% of participants made at least one serious suicide attempt in the previous year, needing medical help after (five times the rate of the general population)
  • 41.7% of males and 31.0% of females experienced suicidal ideation
  • 29.2% of males and 0% of female participants made a serious suicide attempt; for males the rate is 19.5 times higher than the general population
  • For males with FASD, the attempted suicide rate is 3.4% in the sample geographical area (Los Angeles), which is 8.5 times higher than typically developing males in that area
  • Females with FASD were less likely to attempt suicide than the national and sample population
  • Females with FASD have a depressive disorder prevalence rate similar to the general population; males with FASD report a much higher rate of depressive disorder than the general population

 Factors contributing to increased risk of suicidal ideation/serious suicide attempts

  • Lower IQ (particularly males)
  • Adolescents who lived in several homes (i.e. foster system)
  • Depressive disorder
  • Individual characteristics such as: problems making decisions, self-regulating, problem-solving, executive function, social impairments and mood and conduct disorders
  • Males with FASD who have impaired cognitive functioning are at an increased risk of attempting suicide

Based on the findings of the study, the researchers suggest:

  • Improving interventions and monitoring individuals with FASD who are at risk of suicide
  • Working to understand why females with FASD seem to be less likely to endorse suicide than typically developing females
  • Health care professionals should work on diagnosing FASD as early as possible and upon making a diagnosis, make sure these individuals feel supported
  • Researchers have proposed the ‘Safe Alternative for Teens and Youths (SAFETY), which focuses on improving family support and working on engaging in safe behavior and stress management. This has been proven effective in typically developing individuals, and has potential for individuals with FASD as well

 Take home message

It is obvious from this study that adolescents with FASD are at an increased risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempt, compared to the general population. Males with FASD are even more vulnerable than females. Without attending to the needs of each individual and intervening early enough/providing adequate supports, there is an increased likelihood of self-harm and life-threatening behaviour among this population.


Authors: Mary J. O’Connor, Larissa C. Portnoff, Michael Lebsack-Coleman, Katrina M. Dipple

Journal: Birth Defect Research

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