Having a death by suicide in your school can be tragic for everyone in the community. But even more tragic is when that suicide instigates subsequent suicides. This heart wrenching and dangerous phenomenon is known as suicide contagion, and there are ways that schools and communities can help prevent it.

What is suicide contagion?

Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide. This exposure can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. (US Department of Health and Human Services) After that first suicide happens, communities sometimes see an increase in suicides or suicidal behaviors.

Students tend to have strong emotions arise with the loss of a celebrity. Teens have always identified with fame – Hollywood, rock stars, and athletes. These people are their role models. They are their ideals. They are untouchable. Infallible.

There is evidence that suicide contagion is particularly likely when a celebrity dies by suicide. This was first noted with the loss of Marilyn Monroe.  In the months following her death, suicide rates in the US increased 12% over the prior year. Another example is the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams, who died by suicide in 2014. The CDC reported a similar spike with an 8.85% increase in suicides.

Who is at risk for suicide contagion?

Those most in danger of suicide are those already at risk for suicide. This is most true for adolescents and young adults. The New York Times reported that contagion influences at least 5% of youth suicides.

Often these individuals are already looking for information on how to die by suicide. They are already struggling with thoughts of depression and are already at risk for death by suicide says John Ackerman, suicide prevention coordinator at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

How does suicide contagion happen?

Suicide contagion happens when individuals with high-risk factors (those things that predispose them to depression, anxiety, or poor decision-making) and low protective factors (those things that combat depression, anxiety, or poor decision-making) are affected by the news of a suicide. Whether it is a celebrity, a member of the community, or otherwise, this death has a profound impact on them. They may identify with the loss, they may obsess about the loss, or they may compare themselves to the deceased. Death becomes a more viable option.

How do we stop suicide contagion?

As a community, we can take certain measures to prevent or reduce the effects of suicide contagion. When suicide does happen, we should keep the reports concise and factual. Giving elaborate details such as the means is damaging to individuals, primarily youth.  Also, the less often individuals hear about the suicide, the less likely they are to be influenced by contagion. It is best practice to avoid sharing details of any type other than the fact that it was a very sad tragedy. For additional information, you can see these guidelines for media coverage of suicides.

Other factors that may enhance an individual’s propensity toward suicide include prior family suicide, mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, LGBTQ+, diversity of any kind, disability, low social support, and many others. You can find more information on risk factors and warning signs, here.

If a student or anyone you know demonstrates an increased interest in death, acts differently, or expresses any type of warning sign, please refer them to a mental health professional in the district or an administrator.

Practical strategies to put in place today

If someone at your school or in your community dies by suicide, you can take measures to minimize the effects of contagion.

First, avoid sharing the details. Don’t talk about the specific actions the person took or glamorize their loss. This includes giving details about the method used for the suicide, notes left behind, presumed causes, descriptions of the scene, or other details that may engage the interest of others.

Suicide is complex and has many moving parts. Do not oversimplify the reason the person died. There are always many factors involved, and it is therefore suggested that trying to make sense of a person’s actions by statements such as, “they were just very unhappy” or “they were very depressed” may be perceived by others as the only solution for ending their own pain. Rather, listen to your students, empathize with their pain, curiosity, and the emotional roller coaster that will inevitably occur as a result of a sudden loss.

It is natural that you will also have your own personal reactions. Ensure that you have proper support systems through co-workers, friends, and family, and refrain from sharing elevated emotions with your students.

While it is impossible to prevent all suicides, there are ways to enhance your comfort level in engaging in the conversations and bolstering your skill sets in proper intervention and referral techniques.  Please refer to your district’s suicide training for further information.

No matter your role in the district, you can be a part of the solution, whether it be as an early identifier, a source of strength, or a watchful eye. There are steps we can all take to move the needle to help decrease loss.

Hope remains

There is no balm that takes away the pain of suicide, but there are ways to minimize the negative impact of suicide contagion. We hope you never have to deal with any of these situations in your community, but if you do, know there are ways to help. Knowing the facts can enhance student well-being and contribute to the road to healing.