Exposure to peer suicide makes youth more suicidal: new research study

Researchers recommend school- and community-wide prevention programs


New research from two public health researchers suggests that suicide may be contagious, particularly among children aged 12 and 13, and that school or community-wide suicide prevention efforts may be the most effective.

“We found that exposure to suicide predicts suicidality [suicidal thoughts or behavior],” said Sonja A. Swanson and Ian Colman in their paper on the “association between exposure to suicide and suicide in youth,” published May 21 in the Canadian Journal of Medicine.

That direct exposure to suicide predicts suicidal thoughts or behaviour was true for all age groups, although exposure to suicide increased the risk most dramatically in the youngest age group in the study, the researchers said.

The study covered more than 22,000 Canadian youth aged 12 to 17.

Among other things, the researchers found that those in the youngest age group, 12 to 13, were five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and 7.5 per cent attempted suicide after a classmate’s suicide.

But personally knowing someone who died by suicide was associated with suicidal thoughts or behaviour for all age groups — whether or not they were close friends.

A classmate’s suicide and personally knowing someone who died by suicide both predicted suicidal thoughts or behaviour, although the death of a classmate by suicide generally had a stronger effect.

Although some research has suggested that close friends are more strongly affected by a suicide death, the new study’s results show the closest friends of someone who dies by suicide do not have an increased risk of suicidal thinking or behaviour compared with acquaintances.

So, after a suicide, it may be best to include all students in a school rather than target close friends or “high-risk” groups for interventions, the researchers suggest.

“Our findings support school- or community-wide interventions over strategies targeting those who personally knew the decedent [deceased person],” the study said.

The study also suggests that allocating resources following a suicide may be especially important during earlier adolescence.

And it also implies that schools and communities should be aware of an increased risk “for at least two years following a suicide event.”

In 2012, there were 27 deaths by suicide in Nunavut.

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