“The correlation is clear, even after excluding young people who had been in the hospital for mental health problems or drug-related diagnoses,” Charlotte Björkenstam, doctoral student at Karolinska Institute and managing director of the cause-of-death register at Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) said in a statement.
The study was published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last Tuesday.
The researchers examined the grades of almost 900,000 Swedish high school graduates in their last year born between 1972 and 1981, when Swedish schools used a five-point numerical grade scale, with 5 the highest grade.
A follow-up was then conducted regarding suicide up to the ages of 25 to 34.
The results revealed that those with the highest grades had the lowest risk of suicide. Students whose grades in the last year were above average, but below the highest level had a higher risk than those with top grades, while those who had graduated with average grades had an even higher risk.
However, the highest suicide risk was among those who had received “incomplete” grades. Those who completed the last year of high school with an average grade under 2.25 demonstrated a risk of taking their own lives that was about three times higher than those who had earned an average grade of over 4.25.
The same pattern was observed among boys and girls, although the risks were consistently higher for boys.
“The study shows that the grades are an indicator of something else, that something else is not going well in the student’s life. It’s not the grades itself. That’s our interpretation,” Björkenstam told The Local.
Schools can definitely do more for students who are having a hard time regardless of how they are graded, she added, pointing out that the study was conducted on students who graduated in the 1990s.
Björkestam believes that even though Swedish schools now use a different grading system, the findings would be similar.
The researchers of the study accounted for a number of variables, including the educational levels of the parents, whether the parents were on benefits or raising the children alone, the age of the mothers, the mental health of the parents and possible drug use and whether the child was adopted.
“One limitation of the study was that we could not control for mental illness or drug abuse,” Björkenstam told The Local.
One correlation they found was that while the educational level of the parents did not seem to impact suicide risk, it was more common for children of low-educated parents to receive lower grades.
“What our study reveals most of all is how important it is to identify and assist pupils who are unable to meet the performance requirements,” Björkenstam said in a statement.