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Taking the long view in suicide prevention

A unique project in Iceland followed 4 000 children to investigate how the social environment affects biological reactions, emotions and behaviour.

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The EU-funded LIFECOURSE project is a unique longitudinal study which draws together information on personal, social and biological features of young people’s lives. The goal is a greater understanding of how these factors interact to influence the development of emotional reactions such as depression and anxiety as well as behaviours such as substance use, self-harm, suicidal behaviour and delinquency among young people.

Substance abuse

“I’ve been working in this field of understanding what explains outcomes in children and adolescents for over 20 years,” says LIFECOURSE project coordinator Inga Dóra, who set up the website in Icelandic (Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis) (ICSRA) in 1999. “While we know quite a lot about the effects of the environment on different outcomes, we were seeing 5-10 % of children lost in substance abuse every year, so that was one of the drivers for this project,” explains Dóra. The ICSRA has published over 150 studies in the last two decades, focussing on what predicts mental health and behaviour among young people. The primary prevention model to decrease substance abuse among young people, now used in over 30 countries across five continents, is based on these studies. Reykjavik University in Iceland provided an excellent setting for the project, as the country is enthusiastic about societal data collection, with the first census carried out in 1703. A large amount of data is collected on individuals from pre-birth to adulthood, but much of it appears in separate databases that are not cross-linked.

Birth through adolescence

The LIFECOURSE project retrospectively followed the entire cohort of children born in 2004, over 4 000 individuals, charting their lives through the birth registry, school health assessments, unemployment and deprivation statistics, and reports from child protection services. The data was cross-referenced and additional measurements added by taking saliva samples and using questionnaires from over half the cohort at ages 12, 13 and 14. As a result, the LIFECOURSE data represents the first multilevel cohort study that combines biological, behavioural and social data from before birth through adolescence for an entire population birth cohort of adolescents. The project was supported by funding from the European Research Council. “With this funding the project was made possible,” adds Dóra. “Without that we would not have been able to do this.”

A wealth of information

Key questions that the LIFECOURSE project seeks to answer are how stress affects physiology, emotions and behaviour, how the community level and individual level of stress interact over time, and whether the impact of childhood stress is reversible. “We’re in the midst of crunching the data, and will answer these questions in numerous papers in years to come,” says Dóra. “This is only a tiny bit of what we’ll be able to find out. There are thousands of questions we can now answer with this data. The idea was to create an infrastructure that would allow scientists with different focuses to come together, in order to answer questions on how to plan and support policies.” Dóra adds that she and her team are now reaching out to scientists from around the world to work with the ICSRA on drawing findings from the LIFECOURSE data.


LIFECOURSE, Iceland, social, research, children, adolescent, suicide, self-harm, behaviour, cohort

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