We estimated the pooled risk of suicidal behaviors among adolescents and young adults and found that females had an almost twofold higher risk of suicide attempts than males, while males had an almost threefold higher risk of dying by suicide than females. Our meta-analysis has identified risk factors for both suicide attempts and death, which are common to male and female adolescents and young adults: exposure to any form of interpersonal violence and a history of mental or substance abuse disorder. Risk factors for suicide attempts included a history of previous suicidal thoughts and behaviors and a family history of mental disorders and abuse. For suicide death, a common risk factor was a family history of suicidal behavior. We also identified risk factors for suicide attempts in adolescents and young adults that were more specific for females or males, and for suicide death, which were specific for males only (Table 3). Finally, no significant associations were found between the protective factors assessed and suicide attempts and death.
Gender as a risk factor for suicidal behaviors
Girls aged between 12 and 24 years have a higher lifetime prevalence (Evans et al. 2005; Kokkevi et al. 2012; Nock et al. 2013) and 12-month incidence (Evans et al. 2005; Afifi et al. 2007) of suicide attempts. The incidence and lethality of suicide attempts might be reduced among female youths by identifying high risk cases. Young women may be more likely to engage in help-seeking behaviors, to have a general readiness to talk about emotional problems (Beautrais 2002) and to frequently identify friends and professionals as sources of help (Rickwood et al. 2005). Moreover, considering that there is a high prevalence of mental disorders among youth who die by suicide (Renaud et al. 2008), help-seeking behaviors and contact with the health care system may diminish the risk of suicide among girls (Rhodes 2013).
In line with previous studies (Canetto and Sakinofsky 1998; Beautrais 2002), our results show that male youths have a considerably higher risk than females of dying by suicide. Higher mortality among males might be explained by the use of more lethal means, such as firearms and hanging methods (Beautrais 2003; Rhodes et al. 2014b), while drug poisoning is more frequent in females (Beautrais 2003; Mergl et al. 2015). Young males may be less predisposed to help-seeking behaviors in an attempt to exhibit masculine behaviors (Rhodes et al. 2014a). This association may be moderated by intentionality, impulsiveness, and aggressiveness (Beautrais 2003). Furthermore, a male tendency to adopt avoidance strategies (Gould et al. 2004) might make it more difficult for them to cope with emotional and behavioral problems.
An additional explanation for gender differences in suicide deaths may be misclassification. Suicide deaths tend to be reported as accidental or underdetermined due to shame, stigma, or lack of evidence (Beautrais et al. 1996). However, in a Canadian study that reclassified accidental or underdetermined deaths and suspected suicides, the gender gap of suicide rates remained for youths aged 16–25 years (Gould et al. 2004).
Common and gender-specific risk factors for suicidal behaviors
Common risk factors
For suicide attempts, risk factors common to both genders include bullying, childhood maltreatment, community violence, previous suicidal thoughts and behaviors, any previous mental disorder or alcohol or drug abuse, and a family history of mental disorders and substance abuse. For suicide death, common risk factors include childhood maltreatment, any negative life events, and a family history of suicidal behavior.
Early exposure to traumatic life events, such as childhood maltreatment and bullying, implies complex processes that may increase vulnerability for suicidal behaviors, in both genders (Wilcox et al. 2009), including psychopathology (e.g., PTSD) (Wilcox et al. 2010) or maladaptive personality features (O´Brien and Sher 2013). Specifically, exposure to any childhood physical and/or psychological abuse is associated with a lack of social support and risky health behaviors, which consequently are related to poorer mental health and well-being (Sheikh et al. 2016). However, it seems that childhood traumatic experiences favor the development of internalizing symptoms in adulthood due to dissatisfaction with social connections more than a real lack of external support (Sheikh 2018). Furthermore, our findings agree with the results of an extended study conducted in eight eastern European countries, showing that individuals with traumatic childhood experiences were at a significantly increased risk of health-harming behaviors including suicide attempts (Bellis et al. 2014). We found an association between PTSD and suicide attempts among females, and the single study with males showed a threefold risk, which was statistically nonsignificant, probably due to the scarcity of data. No data were found to estimate the association between PTSD and suicide death.
A history of previous suicidal thoughts and behaviors is one of the most frequent common risk factors for later suicide attempts (Borges et al. 2008; O’Connor et al. 2015) and death (Suokas et al. 2001; Wenzel et al. 2011), as well as the presence of any mental disorder (Cavanagh et al. 2003; Zubrick et al. 2016), and alcohol and drug abuse (Evans et al. 2004) for both genders. Suicidal ideation has been related to MDD; when this relationship was analyzed, the risk of suicide attempts was higher among female adolescents and young adults (Wittchen 1994), especially among younger girls (Bolger et al. 1989). This association may also be moderated by depressive symptoms. In males, a predisposition to suicidal behavior may be moderated by hopelessness traits, disruptiveness and conduct problems, and antisocial disorders (highly related to aggressiveness).
Finally, strong associations were found between suicidal behavior in youths and exposure to a history of mental disorders or substance abuse or previous suicidal behaviors in family members. Vulnerability in youths with a family history of mental disorders or suicidal behavior may be reflected in their tendencies to experience increased rates of mental or substance abuse disorders and suicidal behaviors (Mann et al. 1999).
Female-specific risk factors
Female adolescent and young adult victims of dating violence are at a higher risk of attempting suicide. This risk might be moderated by a higher predisposition to have internalizing symptoms and a higher exposure to psychological abuse (Temple et al. 2016). Dating violence might also be a mediator in the association between abortion and suicidal thoughts in youths, the magnitude of this association being related to the severity of the aggression (Ely et al. 2009), but there is no evidence of any mechanism. Nevertheless, there are no similar data in relation to suicidal behaviors.
Previous studies, including a systematic review, are in agreement with our meta-analysis results showing previous abortion as risk factor for suicide attempts. This association may be moderated by mental disorders or substance use (Mota et al. 2010; Coleman 2011). Mental disorders could be related to poor social support or psychological factors that lead to unintended pregnancy; due to a feeling of inability to cope with pregnancy, women decide to have an abortion (Mota et al. 2010). Another possibility is that some vulnerability factors (e.g., poor social support) related to abortion and mental disorders mediate the association (Fergusson et al. 2006). Finally, interpersonal difficulties are associated with suicide attempts among female youths. This may be explained by their greater predisposition to emotional problems, increasing the risk (Kaess et al. 2011). It is clear that all the factors discussed are both interrelated and related to the occurrence of suicidal behaviors. Further research is needed to clarify the pathways and mechanisms.
Male-specific risk factors
According to our results, access to means was a relevant risk factor among male adolescents and young adults, for both suicide attempts and death. Male-specific risk factors for suicide attempts included parental separation or divorce. Our findings are consistent with evidence that living in single-parent families may increase the risk of suicide attempts in male youths. However, other reports suggest that females are also at risk (Chau et al. 2014; Dieserud et al. 2015) or that the risks are similar in both genders (Fergusson and Lynskey 1995; Kim and Kim 2008). In addition, disruptiveness, hopelessness, and previous suicidal behavior among family or friends increased the risk of suicide attempts among males. For suicide death, externalizing disorders and drug abuse conferred a significant risk.
Previous research has shown that male adolescents tend to have slightly more symptoms of externalizing problems, such as aggressive, delinquent (Kaess et al. 2011), and antisocial behavior (Marmorstein and Iacono 2005), which may act as mediators for suicidal behaviors. Further research is needed on this topic. In addition, similar to our data, some studies have found higher rates of suicide attempts among individuals exposed to suicidal behavior in the family and peers (Randall et al. 2015), showing the influence of the environment in youths.
No evidence on protective factors for suicidal behaviors was found in either males or females, probably due to the scarcity of published data. A previous study has shown that the risk of suicidal behavior in adolescents of both genders is reduced by family support (Tseng and Yang 2015) and is possibly increased by weak relationships with peers. In general, females have a higher perception of peer support than males (Kerr et al. 2006). Our meta-analyses results did not find a protective association between peer support and suicidal behaviors in both genders. However, the primary data used for the analyses reported peer support but not perception of it. In addition, peer support might not always be positive, since close relationships with peers involved in suicidal behaviors or at high risk of it do not act as a protective factor (Prinstein et al. 2010). Further investigation is needed for the assessment of protective factors and suicidal behaviors in young people.
This review has some limitations. We used the most widely recommended databases for psychiatric research, including Web of Science and PsycINFO (Löhönen et al. 2010), but were not able to search all available databases. Similar to previous systematic reviews (Devries et al. 2013; Maxwell et al. 2015), articles included came from a broad search strategy. Important information about vulnerable populations (e.g., incarcerated, veteran or active duty populations) was not considered because the inclusion criteria excluded institutionalized populations. No assessment was made of the suicide risk related to sexual orientation and gender identity. However, data analyzing these issues were already published (Miranda-Mendizábal et al. 2017).
The NOS was used to assess the quality of the included studies, but there is limited evidence on its validity (Wells et al. 2013). Nevertheless, its use is recommended by the Cochrane Collaboration. Random effect models were used for meta-analyses. They provide a very conservative estimate of the combined data with wider confidence intervals, as may be seen in some of our results. In addition, they may also lead to statistical values that are less likely to be significant (Borenstein et al. 2009).
For the association of gender and suicide death, only one cohort study was found, including individuals discharged from emergency departments; however, reference individuals were randomly selected from the general population, fulfilling our inclusion criteria. The wide heterogeneity observed in the meta-analyses of risk and protective factors may be explained by (1) the inclusion of observational studies that may have design flaws or tend to distort the magnitude or direction of associations (Stroup et al. 2000); (2) the differences in the adjustment; and (3) the possible reporting bias of the included studies. In addition, there were not enough studies to conduct meta-analyses for some risk, and especially, protective factors, particularly for suicide death.
Implications for prevention
From a public health perspective, there is a need for the development and implementation of effective health policies and preventive strategies for suicidal behavior in adolescents and young adults, as well as for the early identification and reduction in the most prevalent risk factors. For example, reducing the different forms of interpersonal violence could help to diminish the prevalence of mental disorders and risky health and sexual behaviors (Wasserman et al. 2010). In addition, encouraging healthy behaviors (e.g., physical activity) may protect against some risk factors for suicide (Sheikh 2018). However, there is evidence that targeting individuals to change their behaviors will fail as long as the primary risk factors (e.g., childhood maltreatment) remain, because they would allow the appearance of new mediators (Sheikh et al. 2016).
Individual perception of social isolation may lead to impaired mental health and well-being. Strategies applying a more comprehensive approach (including community, school and family environment) (Fountoulakis et al. 2011) and increasing knowledge, to facilitate help-seeking behaviors, could be more effective (Riner and Saywell 2002). In addition, rather than implementing gender-specific prevention strategies, it is important for strategies to target and better address the most prevalent risk and protective factors to prevent suicidal behaviors.
Implications for research
Although gender differences in youth suicidal behavior have been identified, further research is needed. We encourage longitudinal research assessing the role of sociodemographic variables (e.g., socioeconomic status, ethnicity) in suicidal behavior among young persons. Additional research is also needed on academic (e.g., academic failure) and protective factors (e.g., resilience) in young females and males, as well as research on access to means, externalizing problems, and a family history of mental disorders and abuse among young females, and relationship problems, bipolar and eating disorders in young males. To reduce suicide mortality, information is needed on related pathways in both genders. Importantly, the development and implementation of preventive strategies should include gender preferences and context. To do so, youth preferences with respect to public health interventions should be assessed. Finally, as gender is one of the most important social determinants of health inequalities (Solar and Irwin 2010), efforts should be made to reduce the gender gap in health issues, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood, which are periods of special vulnerability.