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Student Suicide May Spur Similar Thoughts in Teens

TUESDAY, May 21 (HealthDay News) -- When a classmate commits suicide, teens are more likely to consider or attempt suicide themselves, according to a new study. This "suicide contagion" occurs regardless of whether the teens knew the deceased student personally, the researchers found.

Teens aged 12 and 13 are particularly vulnerable, according to the study by Dr. Ian Colman, Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology, and Sonja Swanson, of the Harvard School of Public Health. The study appeared May 21 in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Since the effects of exposure to suicide can linger for two years or more, the researchers said, the study findings have implications for suicide-prevention strategies.

"We found that exposure to suicide predicts suicidality. This was true for all age groups, although exposure to suicide increased the risk most dramatically in the youngest age group, when baseline suicidality was relatively low," the researchers wrote. "Perhaps any exposure to a peer's suicide is relevant, regardless of the proximity to the [deceased person]. It may be best for [post-suicide] strategies to include all students rather than targeting close friends."

In conducting the study, the researchers examined data on more than 22,000 teens aged 12 to 17 from a Canadian national survey of children and youth.

Students aged 14 and 15 exposed to a classmate's suicide were almost three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts. Those aged 16 and 17 were twice as likely to contemplate suicide. By this age, the researchers found, nearly one-quarter of teens had a classmate commit suicide and 20 percent knew someone personally who took their own life.

The effects of the suicide contagion, however, were strongest among younger students. The study found that 12- and 13-year-olds exposed to suicide were five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Among these younger students, nearly 8 percent also attempted suicide after a classmate's suicide, compared with about 2 percent not exposed to the suicide of a peer.

"Our findings support school- or community-wide interventions over strategies targeting those who personally knew the [deceased person]," the researchers said. "Allocating resources following an event may be especially important during earlier adolescence, and schools and communities should be aware of an increased risk for at least two years following a suicide event."

Dr. India Bohanna, of the School of Public Health at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, wrote in a commentary accompanying the study in the CMAJ that the study "provides convincing evidence that, among young people, exposure to suicide is a risk factor for future suicidal behavior. This is extremely important because it tells us that everyone who is exposed to suicide should be considered when [post-suicide] strategies are developed."

More information

Visit the American Psychological Association to learn more about teen suicide.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Canadian Medical Association Journal, news release, May 21, 2013

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