Study finds that suicide is contagious among teens

Posted on Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New research by Dr. Ian Colman, an assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine and Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology, has found that suicide contagion - the idea that someone else's suicide can influence your own suicidal thoughts or behaviour - does occur, especially among younger adolescents. What's more, the study published in The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) confirms that teens do not have to be personally linked to the suicide victim to entertain thoughts of suicide or to attempt suicide themselves.

“When someone dies, particularly a young person,” explains Dr. Colman, “the deceased is talked about by their loved ones, in the media and in social media in glowing and romantic terms. Talk like this is understandable whenever a child dies, but it can be dangerous when talking about suicide. You don't want vulnerable youth thinking that suicide is an acceptable or attractive solution to dealing with problems they may have.”

Examining data from over 22,000 participants between the ages of 12 and 17, researchers found that 12-to-13 year olds who had been exposed to suicide were five times more likely to be thinking about suicide themselves or to say that they had attempted suicide. Surprisingly, however, there is almost no variance in these statistics when the teen's personal knowledge of the deceased is factored in. The effect appears to decline as the teen ages: 14-to-15 year olds who were exposed to suicide were three times as likely to think about or attempt suicide, while 16-to-17 year olds were twice as likely.

Dr. Colman's findings have practical implications for mental health professionals involved in prevention. “It's clear that these results support the suicide contagion hypothesis, especially among younger adolescents.  It most certainly supports school-based interventions as opposed to high-risk interventions aimed solely at the friends of the deceased,” Dr. Colman concluded.

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Kina Leclair
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