Recent research has revealed that the act of committing suicide by a teenager may be, in part, contagious. Undoubtedly stress, depression, and a sense of hopelessness contribute to a teen’s decision to commit suicide. What researchers are learning, however, is that the odds of a teen committing suicide increase if he or she knows someone else who has done so.
A recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the odds of a teen thinking of committing suicide greatly increase if the teen knows someone who has killed himself. The study implies that suicide, in some respects, is like flu in that any exposure to a peer’s suicide, regardless of adolescents’ proximity to the peer, may lead to suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, this study revealed that the “suicide contagion” is not rare: by ages sixteen and seventeen, twenty-four percent of teens knew of a classmate who had committed suicide, and twenty percent personally knew someone who died by suicide. The suicide contagion seems to last for at least two years following the suicide of a peer. These researchers concluded that a broad, longer-lasting “post-intervention” strategy should be implemented to help avoid another tragic teen death.
Parents need to be aware of the possible “suicide contagion” effect on their children should such a tragedy strike their community. The victim’s classmates and friends will certainly feel the impact of the suicide most strongly, but the contagion may spread to nearby schools or even multiply by way of social media. It seems to me that the antidote to the “suicide contagion” is engaged, sensitive adults who not only recognize the dangers, but who are skilled in getting help for teens in distress.
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1. S. Swanson, I. Coleman, Association between exposure to suicide and suicidality outcomes in youth, CMAJ May 21, 2013 First published May 21, 2013, doi:10.1503/cmaj.1213
Written collaboratively by John Eun and Paul Smolen M.D.