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Teens Significantly More Likely to Follow Suit After Being Exposed to Suicide

Update Date: May 21, 2013 12:14 PM EDT

Researchers have studied the effects of depression and suicide in young adults who tend to be more vulnerable. One study found that depression within a college environment could be contagious. In a new study, researchers believe that suicide and suicidal ideation for teenagers could be contagious to a certain degree as well. The research team, headed by Dr. Ian Colman and Sonja Swanson, found that for teenagers specifically, the risk of suicide and suicidal ideation increases after teenagers are exposed to a fellow classmate's decision to commit suicide. This increased risk was recorded in both teenagers who knew and did not know the victim.

"We found that exposure to suicide predicts suicidality," writes Colman, Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. "This was true for all age groups, although exposure to suicide increased the risk most dramatically in the youngest age group, when baseline suicidality was relatively low." The research team called this effect the suicide contagion.

The researchers looked at the data of 22,064 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17. The data was compiled by the Statistics Canada's National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth and composed of children throughout the nation. The researchers divided the group of data according to age groups. They discovered that the most vulnerable ages were 12 and 13 years old. This age group was five times more likely to develop suicidal ideation. Within this group, 15 percent of the children who were exposed to suicide by a fellow classmate developed suicidal ideation. Only three percent of children in this age group without the exposure had suicidal ideation. For attempted suicide, the percentages were 7.5 percent versus 1.7 percent, suggesting that suicide by a classmate has negative repercussions regardless of whether or not the children knew one another.

After this age group, the risks steadily lowered. For the age group of 14 to 15-years-old, the risk of suicidal ideation was increased by three times. For 16 to 17-year-old teenagers, the risk was doubled. In this age group, however, the percentage of teenagers who had a schoolmate die from suicide was 24 percent with 20 percent of them stating that they knew the victim personally.

"Given that such exposure is not rare, and appears to be strongly related to suicidality outcomes, further understanding of this association has the potential to help in the prevention of a substantial proportion of adolescent suicidal behaviors," the authors wrote in their publication. The researchers, as well as other experts, hope that these findings could help develop new ways of treating young children and lowering their risks of 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. A unified and concerted effort now needs to be directed toward developing evidence-based postvention strategies. We need to know what works in mitigating the risk of contagion and why," commented Dr. India Bohanna, who was not a part of the study. Bohanna is from the School of Public Health, James Cook University, Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

The study was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

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