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IU sociologist’s ‘devastating work of scholarship’ unveils social roots of youth suicide

Mar 21, 2024

“Poplar Grove” was a seemingly idyllic community, but several suicide clusters shattered the community. Indiana University sociologist Anna Mueller spent three years helping the struggling community understand.

Those three years led her to write her first book: “Life Under Pressure: The Social Roots of Youth Suicide and What to Do About Them,” which offers the first in-depth look at why U.S. youth suicide clusters occur and how to stop them.

Copies of Life under pressure: The Social Roots of Youth Suicide and What to Do About Them by IU Professor Anna Mueller. “Life Under Pressure: The Social Roots of Youth Suicide and What to Do About Them” will be released on April 3. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Mueller, the Luther Dana Waterman Associate Professor of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, is a leading expert on youth suicide and suicide clusters, defined as three or more youths dying by suicide over a short period of time. Mueller is also a senior research leader at the Irsay Institute at IU Bloomington, where she works to improve suicide prevention in schools through policy and research in Indiana and beyond.

Mueller has researched adolescent suicide and suicide clusters for the past decade. Her previous publications caught the attention of Canadian journalist and social sciences author Malcolm Gladwell. He invited Mueller and her co-author, Seth Abrutyn, to host a conversation on contemporary adolescence, mental health and teen suicide prevention in American communities.

“‘Life Under Pressure’ told me more about what has gone wrong with the upper-income corners of American society than any book I’ve read in years,” he said, calling it a “devastating work of scholarship.” The conversation will take place May 6 at The 92nd Street Y, New York, a culture and community center in New York City.

IU Associate Professor of Sociology Anna Mueller poses for a portrait outside Ballantine Hall at IU Bloomington IU associate professor of sociology Anna Mueller. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana UniversityThe book recounts the time Mueller and Abrutyn spent interviewing high school students, parents, mental health workers, school administrators and community members from 2013 to 2016 in Poplar Grove, a pseudonym used in the book to protect the community’s privacy. Members of the town’s public health community had reached out to Mueller to understand why the suicide clusters were occurring.

Mueller found that social environments and compounding pressure on students played a major role in making them more vulnerable to thoughts of suicide. She said students in Poplar Grove were under immense academic pressure from their parents, teachers and peers. Fear of failing to meet expectations had a negative impact on their mental health. However, it wasn’t just students feeling overwhelmed. Mueller said that even parents and the school system were feeling pressured to uphold an idea of excellence.

These findings were presented to the community at the conclusion of the fieldwork. Mueller and Abrutyn suggested training programs that identify suicide warning signs for educators and urged parents to refrain from putting their children’s successes out for public consumption.

“It is a special, beautiful, caring community where everybody talks about being surrounded by this web of support,” Mueller said. “Even the kids feel this.

“But those very sorts of supportive relationships become toxic or challenging when they’re combined with this intense culture that has a very specific and very narrow definition of what it means to be a good kid and a good family. We found kids having incredibly intense emotional responses to even just the prospect of failure.”

In 2021, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory on youth mental health, detailing national trends of increased depressive symptoms in American youth. The advisory cites some of the same societal and community factors Mueller outlines in her book as reasons youth may struggle with their mental health.

According to the report, from 2011 to 2015, youth psychiatric visits for depression, anxiety and behavioral challenges increased by 28%, and from 2007 to 2018, suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10 to 24 increased by 57%. These staggering statistics showcase how critical it is to make children less susceptible to suicide and how important it is to appropriately care for them after someone they know dies by suicide.

There is little scientific research on what schools and communities should do after a suicide loss to help youth grieve and heal, a process called suicide postvention. Yet the way a community reacts to a suicide loss can have a profound impact on the long-term well-being of the student body.

In the book, Mueller addresses the challenges that schools face when handling postvention responses, like scarce resources and unclear guidelines. The few postvention resources available to guide schools suggest returning to normal as soon as possible, but Mueller found that this can feel dismissive to students, especially when done without care or without acknowledging the loss.

Mueller, a leading expert on suicide postvention, is passionate about collaborating with schools — in Poplar Grove and beyond — to improve their crisis response and ensure that students who died by suicide are mourned appropriately, without sensationalizing or normalizing the cause of their death.

Though “Life Under Pressure” is based on scientific research, Mueller said it’s written for a wide variety of audiences. Parents, those who work with youth and mental health professionals can all benefit in understanding how culture and social environments relate to suicide prevention.

Ending on a hopeful note, the book shares knowledge about ending the stigma of mental illness, playing a role in suicide prevention and better supporting youth that all readers can use in their daily lives.

“I think, simply put, we need to build worlds that are worth living in­­­­ — where help is accessible and safe,” Mueller said.

“Life Under Pressure: The Social Roots of Youth Suicide and What to Do About Them” will be released April 3. Tickets to attend Mueller’s conversation with Gladwell in person or online can be found on The 92nd Street Y’s website.

If you are in crisis, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 998. The service is available to anyone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

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Jaleesa Elliott

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