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The University of Alabama

Psychologist to Discuss Predictors of Suicidal Behavior in Teens in UA Talk

Dr. Mitch Prinstein

Dr. Mitch Prinstein

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Social stressors can change DNA and brain chemistry, particularly in adolescent girls, and lead to increased risk for self-harm, according to a psychologist who will discuss his research at 2 p.m. Friday, March 4, at The University of Alabama’s 1093 Shelby Hall.

Dr. Mitch Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will deliver “Predicting Adolescent Suicidal Behavior The talk is part of the UA Center for the Prevention of Youth Behavior Problems speaker series and is open and free to the public.

Prinstein’s research primarily focuses on how adolescents’ interpersonal experiences, particularly among peers, are associated with depression, self-injury and health-risk behaviors.

Adolescent girls, whom Prinstein said account for roughly 80 percent of teen suicide attempts in the United States, have an increased risk for self-harm, but for reasons more complex than biological changes during puberty.

“There’s something about the way girls experience puberty and the stress that comes with it that is different from what boys experience,” Prinstein said. “We’re learning that, usually in the social or interpersonal domain, that intersects with unique vulnerabilities in a society that places girls in higher risk.”

Prinstein is  testing which social stressors, like a breakup of a relationship, change DNA and brain chemistry. Although cells are constantly dying off and new ones are being born, the body’s response to social stressors will start to activate previously dormant DNA, he said.

“A few affected cells probably aren’t a big deal, but if someone experiences a lot of social stress, it can change the checks and balances in a few of our body’s biological systems and affect serotonin levels, which is very important for understanding depression,” Prinstein said. “Having biological connections to suicide broadly suggests that mental health as something that doesn’t merely occur in our heads. The way our daily social experiences play a role in the body’s biology is very real. We need to treat psychology and mental health with the same seriousness as other medical causes for mortality.”

The department of psychology is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes, Goldwater  and Truman scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.

  • CONTACT: David Miller, UA Media Relations, 205/348-0825, dcmiller2@ur.ua.edu
  • SOURCE: Dr. Nicole Powell, Senior Research Coordinator, Center for Prevention of Youth Behavior Problems, 205/348-3535, npowell@ua.edu