Study: Suicidal Thoughts Are 'Contagious' in Teens

Study should 'put doubts to rest' about social nature of suicide.

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A new study suggests that suicidal thoughts are "contagious," especially among young adolescents.

Researchers had long observed, a suicide "copycat" effect, which predicts an increase in suicides after a single high-profile suicide. Some studies have suggested up to 13 percent of suicides are copycat suicides that can be explained by "suicide clustering."

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But a study published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests a suicide doesn't have to be highly publicized in order to cause an impact in others.

The study found students 12-13 years old who had a classmate that committed suicide were nearly five times as likely to have thoughts of suicide than someone who had never had a classmate kill themselves. Nearly a quarter of 16-17-year-olds studied had a classmate that committed suicide: 15.1 percent of those students said they had thought of suicide, compared to 7.4 percent of students who didn't have a classmate who had killed themselves. The study found similar effects for people who had actually attempted suicide. The effects seem to last for at least two years following a suicide.

"The idea that suicide is contagious has always been controversial for various reasons; however, this important study should put many, if not all, doubts to rest," India Bohanna, a researcher studying suicide at Australia's James Cook University wrote in an analysis of the paper. "It provides convincing evidence that, among young people, exposure to suicide is a risk factor for future suicidal behavior."

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Before performing the research, study lead author Sonja Swanson of Harvard School of Public Health, expected to find an increase in suicidal thoughts among students who personally knew someone who had committed suicide. Many schools offer "postvention" therapy for students who are close to a person who has killed themselves in an effort to prevent a second suicide. But the data suggests a teen doesn't have to be particularly close to someone who has killed themselves to be affected.

"Suicide death of a schoolmate was a stronger predictor of suicidality outcomes than suicide by someone personally known, perhaps because the death of a peer resonates with youth more than the death of a close adult," according to the study. "Thus, it may be best for postvention strategies to include all students rather than target close friends."

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