Why are so many teens - living in paradise - contemplating suicide?

Picture of Dr. Georgina with the American Samoan Governor, Lolo Letalu Matalasi Moliga.

Dr. Georgina (left) with the American Samoan Governor, Lolo Letalu Matalasi Moliga. 

There’s a harrowing mystery within some U.S. territories that Dr. Dianna Georgina of Georgia Gwinnett College is working to solve: Why are so many teens living in what many consider to be idyllic environments spending time contemplating suicide? 
 
Suicidal thoughts and behavior rates are highest for adolescents in America Samoa, the focus of Georgina’s research, double those of teens in the United States – and closely followed by those in Guam, Palau and Puerto Rico. The assistant professor of anthropology has spent four years studying these disturbing trends.
 
American Samoa - comprised of five tropical islands between Hawaii and New Zealand – is, by many standards, a paradise. Its 76 square miles contain about 55,000 people and offer beautiful beaches, plenty of sunshine, year-round temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s and a balanced political climate. Western-style housing is prevalent, often with multiple generations living under the same roof and sharing financial burdens. However, unemployment in recent years has hovered between 20 and 30 percent.   
 
“Something has created a really high adolescent rate of suicidal thoughts and behavior,” said Georgina, assistant professor of anthropology. “Whether it’s something to do with individualism versus group orientation or rapid culture change, globalization, unemployment, or something else entirely, adolescents are among the most vulnerable populations so they are going to show the stress first.”
 
Georgina uses applied anthropology to investigate how the culture and the psychology of its people are interacting to create such a dangerous issue. 
 
“Anthropology is considered the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities,” she said. “It involves a lot of science and a lot of statistics.” She has involved students in data entry related to her research, and is working with Dr. Tirza Leader, assistant professor of psychology, to develop a psychological anthropology course that will use the data as a case study.
 
Her research caught the interest of American Samoan Governor, Lolo Letalu Matalasi Moliga, who expressed concern at the findings, and stimulated additional research.  
 
The statistics from her initial study were grim. Nearly 300 students, out of a student population of about 4,000, were surveyed, producing the following results:
 
• American Samoan teens are nearly twice as likely to make a plan to commit suicide as their U.S. counterparts
• 40 percent said they have made a plan at least once 
• 22 percent said they considered suicide in the past 12 months
• 82 percent of American Samoan students have borderline to severe depression
• American Samoan teens are almost three times as likely to attempt suicide as their U.S. counterparts
• Almost six percent said they had made a plan six or more times in the previous 12 months
• Nine percent have attempted suicide once 
• Seven percent have attempted suicide two or three times 
 
“What we know is that there is a hierarchal social structure in American Samoa based on age,” Georgina said. “The older you are, the more power you have. So children have the least power and are taught that they should be seen and not heard. That probably worked for thousands of years. But now, in the face of so much change, children are caught in that crosscurrent.” 
 
Georgina discussed her findings in a private audience with Governor Molina, and has made a presentation on her research to representatives of the American Samoa Department of Education, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders in American Samoa. She plans to return to American Samoa to conduct a much broader and more in-depth survey, and to look further beneath the numbers and uncover the reasons for this trend.
 
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