New study supports suicide 'contagion' in teens
May 21st, 2013
04:52 PM ET

New study supports suicide 'contagion' in teens

Having a schoolmate commit suicide significantly increases the chance that a teenager will consider or attempt suicide themselves, according to a new study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

The study surveyed more than 22,000 Canadian children aged 12 to 17.  They were asked if anyone in their school, or anyone they knew personally had died by suicide and if they had seriously considered attempting suicide themselves in the past year. The researchers found that the risk of suicide was magnified even if the child did not know the deceased student personally.

Researchers found 12 to 13-year-old children were at greatest risk and were five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than teens who had not been exposed to a death.  According to the study, 7.5% of these children attempted suicide after a fellow student did, compared to 1.7% of adolescents in this age group who did not have a schoolmate attempt suicide.

"The bottom line is that the suicide contagion theory may be real," says senior author Ian Colman, the Canada Research Chair in mental health epidemiology and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.  "Being exposed to a suicide appears to be strongly associated with suicidal thinking and suicidal behavior and these effects may persist for a long time.

"This was remarkably common, at least in our study that is representative of the entire Canadian population. By the time these children were 16 or 17, one out of four were reporting that somebody in their school had died of suicide. That seems really high, but if you consider one child dies of suicide and they attend a school with 1,000 students, 1,000 students have been exposed to suicide."

Colman says suicide contagion, imitation or copycat suicides, has been around for a long time, but until now there wasn't strong evidence supporting the theory. Suicidal behavior is a global problem, he says. "It's the second leading cause of death among young people, and losing a loved one to suicide is incredibly distressing for the survivors."

In many cases, for years to come.

"We found that these effects weren't short-lived," Colman said. "The survey contacted the children every two years so we could follow up the reports of the school suicide to see if there was still an effect two years later. And in many cases, suicidal thinking and suicide attempts were still increased among those who had reported a suicide in their school two years previously."

Friends closest to the suicide victim were no more likely to have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts than other acquaintances, according to the study.

"We suggest schools should be thinking about doing interventions after a suicide schoolwide, involving everybody in the school, rather than just the friends or immediate classmates of the person who died," Colman said. "Schools should consider longer-term interventions or programs where they're going to revisit the intervention because we saw this longer-term effect."

Psychiatrist Dr. Karen Johnson says she doesn't believe the study should be considered "cut-and-dried information."

"As they mentioned, there are many other risk factors for teenagers, girls and boys, to attempt or consider suicide," says Johnson, associate chair of psychiatry at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

"There was no indication as to what were the youngsters' state prior to their classmate's attempt," she noted. "Did these kids already have risk factors themselves prior to their classmate's attempt? Did they have a history of depression anxiety or substance abuse? Did they have a family history of suicide attempts or completions? Did they have a history of traumatic events in their life? It would have been good to know if the kids in the study met any of these criteria prior to the classmate attempt."

Colman says schools "may want to consider paying attention to the younger students, where these effects seem to be felt the strongest."  He says these children should not feel like they are alone and helpless.  "It's important to create a culture where students or children feel comfortable seeking help if they're struggling with their mental health. It's important for parents to talk to their kids about mental health. Be open, be supportive and make sure that your child knows that help is available."

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  2. bentabou

    It would help a lot of people if we could stop referring to "commiting" suicide. One commits a crime. Suicide is a tragedy, usually connected to major depression. Anomalies in brain structure and function are identifiable in autopsies of people who die by suicide. An illness is not a crime. Referring to it this way adds to the shame and difficulty of talking about it– and preventing it.

    May 25, 2013 at 02:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • diana horton

      my son killed his self at the age of 17yrs old. over a girl. I am so sick of hearing oh he was a coward. no he was bipolar.

      June 2, 2013 at 17:58 | Report abuse |
  3. vikingwoman

    Studies abound on this subject, especially in the 90s during the "suicide pact" era! Often kids who are going through the same real or imagined hardships flock together, which is why suicidal "copycatting" is more prevalent among those who's friend has suicided! They have a bond of pain & when 1 dares to "go thru w/it" the others respond in kind! It's sad, but preventable by paying attention to your child, especially during the hormonally & emotionally charged teen years! Parents really need to get more in tune w/their "rebellious teens" & realize sometimes acting up is a call for help, for some1 to care! Caring is the #1 prevention against suicide, across the board!!

    May 28, 2013 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mer

      I'm sure my own parents and every other parent who lost a child to suicide would love to hear that they didn't care enough about their child.

      June 4, 2013 at 11:08 | Report abuse |
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  9. shannon

    Anyone who has had a friend, family member or even coworker commit suicide knows it hurts. The death of a loved one or friend is tramatic.
    We don't know how to carry on. It's sometimes diffcult just to get out of bed. How could you live on?... knowing the one person you knew.....the person you cared about is no longer here? You youself sink into depression. You find that there's nothing to smile about. Nobody is there for you...nobody understands you. You eventually realize there's nothing to live for.

    The one thing which helps others cope with the loss is to have someone there for you....someone who cares...someone who understands the pain that you're going thru...someone who will hold you. People who have lost a friend or loved one to suicide need love and support themselves.

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  10. samreenm

    Unfortunately suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in young children. Suicidal attempts are devastating to the family, friends and community. The need is to look at the reasons behind such attempts which are depression, hopelessness and loss of some dear one most of the time. Behaviours and statements should always be treated with utmost seriousness. The bond between parents and children should be strong.

    Samreen M

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    In the small suburban area where I grew up, my best guess is 11 suicides in Lindenhurst where I grew up. I often wonder how this has affected me

    June 12, 2013 at 20:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Katherine F.

    I have a definite family history of suicide so I don't take any form of depression lightly. I do believe it has a "contagious" effect and was extremely cautious when my daughter's friend attempted to take her own life. My heart goes out to anyone who has been touched by a loved one's suicide and feel no one should feel to blame. The brain can become ill just like any other part of the body. It needs treatment as well. This is a fight that must be fought by the community as a whole and that won't happen until we get rid of the social stigma of mental illness. We need to stop judging and start loving.

    June 16, 2013 at 10:22 | Report abuse | Reply
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