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After a suicide, classmates often think about it too, study says

May 20, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • A note from a distressed teen about a classmate who may have committed suicide.
A note from a distressed teen about a classmate who may have committed suicide. (Irfan Kahn / Los Angeles…)

A schoolmate's suicide is associated with thinking about or trying suicide among teenagers, researchers report.

There has long been a theory that suicide is "contagious," meaning exposure to it can increase the risk, but there have been few studies that delve into the possibility. In a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Assn. Journal, researchers surveyed thousands of teenagers about the effects of suicide by someone they knew or attended school with.

"Adolescents may be particularly susceptible to this contagion effect," wrote researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Canadian universities of Ottawa and Alberta. "More than 13% of adolescent suicides are potentially explained by clustering."

Interventions after a suicide often last a few months – too short, according to the researchers, who suggest the effects last at least two years.

And, they say, their results suggest that schoolwide interventions – rather than those aimed at the dead person's close friends – would be more effective.

By the age of 16 or 17, more than 24% of the students reported that a schoolmate had committed suicide, and 20% said they knew someone who had done so.

The researchers looked at whether exposure to a schoolmate’s suicide within a year had any effect. They found that 15.3% of those ages 12 and 13 reported thinking about suicide, compared with 3.4% of that age group who were not exposed; the percentages for suicide attempts were 7.5% and 1.7%. Among those ages 14 and 15, it was 14.2% and 5.3%, with attempts at 8.6% and 2.3%. Among 16- and 17-year-olds, the percentages for considering suicide were 15.1% and 7.4%, with attempts at 8.1% and 2.7%.

Broadly, the suicide death of a schoolmate was a stronger predictor of suicide outcomes than a suicide by someone who is personally known, perhaps because the death of a peer resonates with youth more than the death of a close adult, the researchers wrote.

mary.macvean@latimes.com

@mmacvean on Twitter

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