High sensation seeking in adolescence is associated with engagement in risk-taking behaviors, especially substance use. Although depressed adolescents are prone to increased risk-taking, and suicidal behavior can be considered within the spectrum of risk-taking behaviors, the relationships between sensation seeking, depression, and suicidal behavior have not been explored.
A self-report questionnaire assessing sensation seeking, depression, substance use problems, and suicidal ideation and suicide attempts was completed by 9th- through 12th-grade students (n=2189) in six New York State high-schools from 2002 through 2004. Logistic regression analyses were conducted to examine main and interaction effects between sensation seeking and the four clinical variables.
High sensation seeking was positively associated with depressive symptoms and substance use problems. The main effects of sensation seeking on suicidal ideation and suicide attempts remained significant after controlling for depression and substance use. The association between sensation seeking and suicide attempts was moderated by substance use problems.
The schools were suburban and predominantly white, limiting the generalizability of the results. Other mental disorders with potential implications for sensation seeking and for suicidal behavior, such as bipolar disorders, were not assessed.
The finding that sensation seeking makes an independent contribution to the risk of suicidal ideation and attempts is consistent with findings in literature on novelty seeking and impulsivity. The associations between sensation seeking, depressive symptoms and suicidal behavior may be compatible with the presence of an underlying temperamental dysregulation. Screening for sensation seeking may contribute to the reduction of adolescent suicide risk.