- Young people who reported that they were overweight were more likely to also report having suicidal thoughts.
- At age 10, girls who believed they were overweight were significantly more likely to think about suicide than boys.
- Thoughts of suicide diminished over time for boys and girls, regardless of body image.
Seeing oneself as overweight or obese may be an important, independent predictor of suicidal thoughts, especially in young girls, reports a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Understanding the link between body image and suicide is critical, said the study’s lead author, Dong-Chul Seo, Ph.D., associate professor at the School of Public Health at Indiana University. “The study’s findings clearly indicate that overweight perception is an independent predictor for suicidal ideation, the same as depression.”
Seo and his colleagues analyzed the responses of 6,504 middle school and high school students surveyed from 134 schools in 50 states between 1995 and 2008. Participants were asked if they had seriously thought about committing suicide during the past 12 months and how they perceived their body weight.
Researchers found that suicidal thoughts were higher in those who thought they were overweight compared to those who didn’t see themselves as overweight (18 percent vs. 10.4 percent), even after controlling for such variables as age, ethnicity and depression and independent of actual body mass index (BMI).
Furthermore, the effect was stronger in girls at age 10 than in boys.
Overall, there was a decrease in suicidal ideation as participants aged between 15 and 21 years old. By the time they were 28 years old, the rate of suicidal thoughts leveled off to 5.8 percent in those who didn’t perceive themselves as overweight and 6.7 percent in those who did.
Robert P. Schwartz, M.D., professor emeritus of pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, agreed with the findings and noted that in another recent study, 77.1 percent of obese and 54.2 percent of overweight adolescents had an accurate perception of what they weighed.
“Although being obese or extremely obese (but not overweight) was associated with a significantly greater risk of adolescent suicidal ideation, in these adolescents, the excess weight did not increase the odds of suicide attempts. Therefore being obese was associated with an increased risk of suicidal ideation but the risk of attempting suicide was similar to ‘normal’ adolescents.”
Still, Schwartz pointed out health care providers should be aware that suicidal ideation is another serious comorbidity of childhood obesity. “They should screen at-risk adolescents who perceive themselves as overweight or obese for self-esteem, depression and suicidal ideation.”
Seo added, “The findings of the study underline the need for development of effective interventions to address body weight perception to reduce suicidal ideation and as well as attempts, especially among female teenagers.”
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