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Is suicide contagious?

May 30, 2013

A recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) finds that youth who are exposed to suicides among their peers are more at risk for suicides themselves. This phenomenon, known as “suicide contagion,” was recently studied to understand if there are at-risk youth groups that require unique interventions when exposed to suicides among their peer group, particularly amongst their school mates. While existing research exists, it does not account for who is most vulnerable to suicide contagion.

Data was analyzed from the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth between 1998/1999 and 2006/2007 with follow-up assessments two years later. Study participants were youth who had a heightened exposure to suicide and were between the ages of 12 to 17 years, with the following breakdown:

  • 8,766 youth aged 12 to 13 years;
  • 7,802 teens aged 14 to 15 years; and
  • 5,496 youth aged 16 to 17 years.

Findings indicated that exposure to the suicide of classmates increased the probability of additional suicides and/or suicidal ideation amongst other students, even more than personally knowing someone (such as an adult) who had committed suicide. In other words, the suicide of a peer had a much stronger effect than that of anyone else.

Among respondents aged 12 to 13 years, 15.3 per cent of those exposed to suicide in the past year reported ideation, compared with 3.4 per cent of those unexposed and 7.5 per cent attempted suicide compared to less than two per cent of the unexposed.

This pattern was consistent among respondents aged 14 to 15 years for ideation (18.4 per cent for exposed versus 7.6 per cent for the unexposed) and suicide attempts (12.5 per cent for exposed versus 3.6 for the unexposed). It also remained consistent among respondents aged 16 to1 7 years for ideation (15.0 per cent for exposed versus 7.4 per cent for the unexposed) and attempts (8.0 per cent versus 2.7 per cent).

The study also revealed that the effects of knowing someone who committed suicide have long-lasting effects; in the two year follow up, many adolescents still reported suicidal thoughts or actions during that time period.

The study also revealed that there was a significant association between a previous stressful life event in predicting suicidal ideation and future attempts.

Further understanding of this association has the potential to help in the prevention of a substantial proportion of adolescent suicidal behaviours.

Since about 25 per cent of adolescents are exposed to suicide by the time they are 16 years old, study authors urge school-wide interventions over targeted interventions in the prevention and spread of youth suicide.

The CMAJ abstract, Association between exposure to suicide and suicidality outcomes in youth, is published on the CMAJ website. You can also read the Globe and Mail article, “Suicidal thoughts can spread among teens, study finds.”

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