When teen suicide strikes close to home, communities are heartbroken and frightened as they realize many teens’ pain and suffering. Sudden tragedy shocks us into vigilant awareness of danger and loss.
Although we don’t usually think of suicide as contagious, one of the strongest predictors of suicide in youth is the suicide or suicide attempt of a friend or family member (Juhnke, Granello, & Haag-Granello, 2011; Mayer, 2013). Teens exposed to suicide are at significantly higher risk of suicide over the next two years (Mayer, 2013). Exposure to suicide in online forums (Dunlop, More, & Romer, 2011) and through YouTube videos about suicide fuels self-destructive fantasy and also increases suicide risk.
Research offers guidelines for parents, schools, and the media to reduce contagion. Recommendations include refraining from giving details or images of the method or place where the victim was found (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1994; Sudak & Sudak, 2005). Care should be taken not to focus on the immediate external precipitant as the cause of the suicide (e.g., a break-up) or other situations to which teens can easily relate (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1994; Mayer, 2013). Doing so increases identification with the victim and can inadvertently convey that suicide could also be a solution to their problems. Another danger is allowing memorializing to go too far, feeding into teen idealization of death and suicide (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1994; Sudak & Sudak, 2005).
Vulnerable teens, feeling unpopular or alone in their pain, may envy the compassion others feel for the suicide victim. They see suicide as an effective means of becoming popular and getting others to finally say good things about them, care about them, and take them seriously. To protect against this, it’s important not to portray the victim and what happened in a simplified, one-dimensional way (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1994; Mayer, 2013; Sudak & Sudak, 2005).
Parents can help teens recognize that people who resort to suicide have complicated psychological conditions. Such conditions temporarily cause overwhelming feelings and desperation. They affect our ability to think clearly and flexibly, find solutions to problems, have hope and perspective. We should alert teens that when people are going through this, they don’t recognize that they are caught in a distorted way of thinking and painful emotional state which will not last, and from which they can recover.
Teens should be warned that that this frame of mind can trick them into believing they are seeing life clearly, which is why it’s important to tell an adult they trust at the first sign that they or a friend want to hurt themselves or die. However, teens don’t feel safe talking to adults about suicide. 93 percent of teens surveyed said they’d consult a friend before an adult. Only 25 percent would tell an adult if they or a friend were suicidal (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010).
Instead, most teens who attempt or commit suicide express their feelings and intent through text or social media including: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (Dunlop, More, & Romer, 2011). These findings remind us that it makes sense to “friend” our kids on Facebook, and explain that – just as we want to know their friends and activities offline to protect them – we also want to be aware of online friends and activities.
Teens need to know that people considering suicide are in a very dangerous, complex situation that is difficult even for experienced adults. Telling an adult that a friend is in trouble is not a betrayal because, although it may seem otherwise, suicidal teens are reaching out for help.
No one really wants to die. People kill themselves in desperation – intending to escape, give themselves the illusion of control, or when they are unable to effectively communicate in words (Juhnke, Granello, & Haag-Granello, 2011).
Teens should be told that failing to ask an adult for help may leave them with a terrible burden of guilt if a friend commits suicide. Teens connected with recent victims of suicide need help with these and other feelings.
Any expressions of hopelessness or threat to hurt oneself should always be taken seriously and never shut down with reassurance that things are not that bad, or dismissed as “drama,” “manipulation” or ploys for “attention.”
Parents must have the courage to listen and make it safe for teens to talk to them. We should ask direct and open questions about how teens feel about living and dying, and whether they have thoughts about hurting themselves and suicide. If we are open to hearing the truth, we will be able to break secrecy and open the door for teens to get help.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1994, April). Suicide contagion on the reporting of suicide: recommendations from a national workshop. MMWR, 43(RR-6), 9-18. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00031539.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010, June). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States, 2009. MMWR, 59(SS05). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/MMWR/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5905a1.htm
Dunlop, S. M., More, E., & Romer, D. (2011, October). Where do youth learn about suicides on the internet, and what influence does this have on suicidal ideation? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(10), 1073-80.
Juhnke, G. A., Granello, P. F., & Haag-Granello, D. (2011). Suicide, Self-Injury and Violence in the Schools: Assessment, Prevention, and Intervention Strategies. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Mayer, A. (2013, May). Needed: new approaches to defuse ‘suicide contagion’ among teens. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca
Sudak, H. S. & Sudak, D. M. (2005). The media and suicide. Academic Psychiatry, 29, 495-499.
Youth Suicide Prevention School-Based Guide. Issue brief 3b. (2012). Risk factors: how can a school identify a student at-risk for suicide? http://theguide.fmhi.usf.edu/pdf/2012PDFs/IB-3b.pdf