Teen suicide is tremendously painful and tragic. New research is suggesting that the tragedy of teen suicide may reach far beyond those who knew or were immediately connected to the deceased. The research indicates that any kind of exposure to another student’s suicide increases the chances that teens will entertain suicidal thoughts themselves.
The findings came via a Canadian study that reviewed data compiled through a National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. The data encompassed over 22,000 Canadian youths ages 12 to 17. There have been prior suggestions that suicide can be contagious, but this research is among the first to present evidence for what has been termed “suicide contagion.”
Effects on Younger Teens
The study found that while teens of all ages were affected by exposure to suicide, the younger the teen, the greater the risk of contemplating suicide. Kids who were 12 to 13 years old when exposed to a fellow student’s suicide were five times more apt to engage in suicidal ideation as a result. Around 15 percent of exposed 12 to 13 year olds thought about suicide compared to just 3 percent of kids that age who thought about it without being exposed to a friend’s death. 8 percent of these young teens tried to commit suicide after being exposed.
The study found that for kids 14 and 15 years old, the risk of suicidal thoughts was three times what it would be if the child had not been exposed to a classmate’s suicide. The risk dropped further for teens in the 16 to 17 year age bracket, but it was still double the risk compared to non-exposed teens of similar age. These teens were all affected by a fellow student’s suicide, regardless of whether they had known that student or not.
Long-Term Effects and Prevention Care
By the time teens entered the 16 to 17 year old bracket, one-quarter of them had been exposed to a classmate’s suicide and 20 percent of them knew the victim personally. The study showed that the effects of suicide exposure lasted up to two years.
Suicide contagion appears to be a real phenomenon. Knowing the risks should directly affect how post prevention care is handled. It is not only those students closest to the deceased who need outreach, but all students who were exposed in some way to the suicide, and the care needs to persist for an extended amount of time.
Being exposed to a schoolmate’s suicide increases the risk that a teenager will think about and perhaps even attempt suicide. The teen will be at risk for at least two years. Appropriate interventions could therefore significantly reduce the number of young people negatively affected by suicide contagion.