Living in a community with intense pressure to succeed and a high degree of social connectedness can increase suicide risk, particularly among teenagers, according to a new study by sociologists at the University of Chicago and University of Memphis.
The researchers found that these two community conditions tend to be involved in suicide clusters — a phenomenon in which a series of suicides occur around the same time and in close proximity. While news outlets have reported the emergence of clusters, little is understood about why they happen or how to prevent them.
The study provides new insights into suicide prevention efforts, which have focused traditionally on the downsides of social isolation and the role of mental illness. The researchers demonstrate how one’s community should be taken into account when gauging suicide risk, and why prevention organizations should no longer view social connectedness exclusively as a positive force in protecting against suicide.
“Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of this study is that it highlights the downside to social connectedness, something that is usually touted as a key tool for suicide prevention,” said researcher Anna S. Mueller, an assistant professor in Comparative Human Development at University of Chicago.
“It also helps explain why some schools with intense academic pressure have problems with suicide while others do not. It’s not just the pressure: It’s the pressure combined with certain community factors that can make asking for help harder to do.”
For the study, Mueller and co-researcher Seth Abrutyn, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, examined a suburban, upper-middle-class community that had experienced at least four suicide clusters over the last 15 years.
The findings show that the greatest risk for suicide was an extreme pressure to succeed, coupled with narrowly defined ideals about what youths should be, particularly when it came to academics and athletics.
Fears of not living up to such ideals along with the ease with which private information became public, due to social connectedness, made teens and their parents less likely to seek help for mental health problems for fear of being labeled. These conditions rendered youths who were already struggling particularly vulnerable to suicide, despite having social connections within the community.
The researchers began with the seminal work Suicide by French sociologist Émile Durkheim, published in 1897. While his assertion that a socially isolated individual is more prone to suicide remains a cornerstone of prevention, much less attention has been given to his discussion of how high levels of integration in society also can create risk.
Mueller and Abrutyn then turned their attention to a single community, in which 19 students or recent graduates of the local high school had committed suicide between 2000 and 2015. They conducted field research which included interviews and focus groups involving a total of 110 people. The study does not name the town due to confidentiality agreements.
In their findings, the researchers recommend helping students navigate perceived failure and academic stresses. They also assert that suicide prevention strategies should take into consideration that social connectedness is not always a good thing. The authors suggest more sociologists focus on suicide, seeing a growing role for the field to understand and prevent it.
“Since Durkheim’s important work, sociology has contributed surprisingly little to understanding and preventing suicide, particularly compared to psychology and epidemiology,” Mueller said.
“This is unfortunate since sociologists have the theoretical and empirical tools necessary to examine some fundamental unanswered questions about suicide, one of the most important being: ‘How do we stop suicide clusters from happening?'”
The findings are published in the journal American Sociological Review.
Source: University of Chicago