Suicide, the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), has been in the news several times in the last year due to suicide “clusters” at Cornell University and in California and Pennsylvania. A suicide cluster is defined by the CDC as “a group of suicides or suicide attempts, or both, that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.” 1 “Suicide contagion” or “copycat” suicides is the behavior that leads to clusters of suicides. The idea that suicide clusters occur as a result of a contagious type of behavior has not been established through studies, but suggested by anecdotal evidence and statistical analysis. These seem to indicate that suicides occurring later in a cluster appear to have been influenced by suicides earlier in the cluster.
Note: A suicide cluster is not the same thing as a suicide pact. A suicide pact is an agreement between two or more individuals to commit suicide at the same time, and is rare, according to the CDC. The individuals in a suicide cluster may have had no actual contact with each other at all.
Who’s at Risk?
Teenagers and young adults tend to be the most vulnerable to suicide “contagion,” predominantly for two reasons:
1. They model the behavior of their peers. Teenagers often give the opinion and actions of their peers more weight than that of their parents or other adults.
2. They have a tendency to act impulsively, due to their prefrontal cortex (where complex cognitive functions occur) not being fully developed yet.
At the greatest risk are individuals with an underlying mental health problem like depression, anxiety or substance abuse.
Media coverage of suicides, especially when it is both dramatic and extensive, can encourage vulnerable individuals to seek attention, or retaliation, by committing suicide.
Media outlets should avoid:
- Dramatic headlines and glorifying the suicide.
- Detailed descriptions of the method and location of the suicide, as this is believed to encourage imitation.
And instead, focus on:
- Identifying signs, myths about suicide, treatment and how to prevent someone from committing suicide.
- Providing details of local screening programs and available mental health programs.
- Reporting on the factors that may have led to the suicide, including mental illness and making it clear that the causes are complex.
Recently, officials in a city that had seen several suicides asked the “Dr. Phil” show not to focus on their city when doing a show about teen suicide. Although teenagers from that city were interviewed on the show, the city was not named and the discussion focused on stress and mental health issues that might lead teens to commit suicide, suicide warning signs and ways to help someone who is displaying them.
Identifying signs of suicidal behavior, especially among people who were acquainted with the person who committed suicide.
Parents, counselors, teachers and other adults should not avoid raising the topic with youths. Contrary to popular belief, discussing suicide with an individual who is at risk does not plant an idea in their head. In fact, it’s believed that discussing suicide with someone at risk can help to prevent it.
The CDC suggests in CDC Recommendations for a Community Plan for the Prevention and Containment of Suicide Clusters that communities should consider downplaying memorials to individuals who committed suicide.