When Romeo and Juliet Are Real Life

Classmate suicides increase risk of a teen considering or attempting suicide

(RxWiki News) Few events are more tragic for a school to manage than a student's suicide. Talking to students about the death appropriately, however, might prevent additional suicides at the school.

A recent study found that suicide can be "contagious" among teens. Students are much more likely to think about and attempt suicide if they had a classmate commit suicide.

The risk remained for at least two years after the classmate's suicide, even if the student did not personally know the classmate who committed suicide.

"Suicide isn't the answer. Call for help: 1-800-273-8255."

The study, led by Sonja A. Swanson, ScM, of the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, looked at the evidence for suicide being "contagious" among teenagers.

The researchers investigated data in the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth between 1998-99 and 2006-07.

The survey asked questions related to thinking about suicide, attempting suicide, knowing a classmate who committed suicide and other suicide risk factors.

The respondents included a total of 22,064 students aged 12 to 17. Then, the researchers followed up with the respondents of each survey two years later.

The researchers looked at whether the teens were at an increased risk of suicide if they had a classmate commit suicide. They divided the students into groups by ages.

Among the 8,766 students aged 12 and 13, the students were five times more likely to think about committing suicide if they had a classmate who committed suicide than if they did not have a classmate who had committed suicide.

Among the 7,802 students aged 14 and 15, the teens were three times more likely to contemplate suicide if a classmate had committed suicide.

Among the 5,496 teens aged 16 and 17, the students were a little more than twice as likely to consider committing suicide if a classmate had done so.

The patterns for actual suicide attempts were similar to the risk of thoughts of suicide across all age groups.

The 12- and 13-year olds were five times more likely to attempt suicide if a classmate had committed suicide than if they did not have a peer commit suicide.

Those aged 14 and 15 were four times more likely to attempt suicide if a classmate had committed suicide.

The students aged 16 and 17 who had a classmate commit suicide were three times more likely to attempt a suicide themselves.

"Personally knowing someone who died by suicide was associated with suicidality outcomes for all age groups," the authors wrote. The risk did not change even if the students did not personally know the classmate who committed suicide.

The increased risk of attempted suicides among teens aged 12 to 15 continued for at least two years after a classmate had committed suicide.

Two years after the initial survey, the students aged 12 and 13 were still three times more likely to attempt suicide if they had a classmate who committed suicide than if they hadn't.

Teens aged 14 and 15 were a little less than three times more likely to attempt suicide two years after a classmate had committed suicide than if they did not know a peer who committed suicide.

The study's findings have implications for how schools, parents and the community address a student's suicide with other students in the school.

"Perhaps any exposure to a peer's suicide is relevant, regardless of the proximity to the [person who died]," they write. "It may be best for intervention strategies to include all students rather than target close friends," the authors wrote.

"Our findings support school- or community-wide interventions over strategies targeting those who personally knew the decedent and implies that schools and communities should be aware of an increased risk for at least two years following a suicide event," they wrote.

Seanna Crosbie, LSW, a dailyRx expert and the Director of Program Services at Austin Child Guidance Center in central Texas, said that suicide is one of the leading preventable causes of death in children and teens in the US.

"As practitioners, we have known for years the importance of supporting those with close ties to an individual who has committed suicide," Crosbie said.

"However, in recent times, we are learning more about the impact of suicide outside of the 'inner circle' of friends and family," she said. "This article highlights the importance of large scale community and school-based interventions following a suicide."

"Additionally, this research study supports the need for further investigation into the types and frequency of intervention programs that are most effective in preventing 'contagious' suicide attempts by others," Crosbie said.

The study was published May 20 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The research was funded by the SickKids Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. No disclosures were noted on the study.

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Review Date: 
May 18, 2013