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Teen Suicide Prevention: Monitoring Our Teens

Is Suicide Contagious?
Girl sad

It can be, according to scientists. A study by Stockholm and Oxford Universities found that people with relatives who had taken their own life are 8.3 to 9.1 times more likely to do the same; for men who knew work colleagues who killed themselves, the figure was 3.5 times. As for teens, research shows that even minor exposure to suicide more than doubles the risk of what experts call "suicide contagion"—that is, copycat acts—among 12- to 17-year-olds regardless of whether they personally knew the student who died. This is especially true if they've watched news reports sensationalizing the event, or seen a memorial service or website postings that idealize the deceased or attribute the suicide to school pressure or a romantic breakup.

At this age, "kids tend to identify with their peers and might start to view suicide as a solution for ending their own pain," says Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, adding that teens who suffer from substance abuse, depression or severe anxiety are at much greater risk. Of course, not every child is susceptible. "If a kid is relatively healthy and grounded, he'll be upset by a suicide, but not to the point of following suit," says Gould. Even so, parents shouldn't avoid the subject. An ongoing dialogue with your teen is one of the best ways to help him cope.