Teen Suicides and the Contagion Effect
Even though the teen suicide rate has dropped significantly since 1990, suicides among teenagers remain disturbingly high. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds. Like adults, teens who suffer from mental disorders associated with depression or substance abuse are much more likely to contemplate suicide. Some of the symptoms of teen depression include the following:
- Excessive sleeping or severe insomnia
- Loss of interest in regular activity
- Extreme irritability
- Prolonged sense of hopelessness
- Frequent sadness with bouts of crying
- Sudden and severe changes in weight
The Contagion Effect
There is another cause of suicide that influences about 5% of teens called the contagion effect. Also called “cluster” suicides or “copy-cat” suicide, the contagion effect refers to the phenomenon that occurs when one teen suicide leads to other teens emulating the same behavior, resulting in several attempted or successful suicides usually within the same geographic area and within a relatively short period of time. Many researchers now believe that social networking sites like Facebook may inadvertently contribute to the contagion effect as it relates to suicides. For example, after a suicide, these sites become hot spots for young people to express their emotionally charged thoughts and ideas, making the one who has died an overnight celebrity of sorts. Many professionals believe that this glamorization of taking one’s own life can plant a fast-growing seed in vulnerable individuals. Media coverage of suicides is also now recognized as a factor in suicide contagion, as well. Parents and others can have a significant impact on how the media covers such events by proactively encouraging responsible journalism. The community can help by requesting limited coverage of suicide events and asking that reporters refrain from sensationalizing stories.
Read the Signs
Parents are not helpless when it comes to intervening in teen suicides. Become a careful observer of your teen and learn to recognize the signs that often indicate that a teen might be contemplating suicide. Of course, sometimes an adolescent is very vocal about their intentions, but more often they merely hint at their suicidal thoughts. Watch for these signs:
- Increased abuse of alcohol or drugs.
- Unusual giving away of possessions.
- Putting things in order. This behavior may include activities such as cleaning out their locker at school, settling grievances with friends or family members, or settling debts.
- Becoming obsessed with death or expressing dark themes in art or writing.
- Difficulty functioning at school or at home.
- Exhibiting signs of psychosis like hallucinating or having delusions.
If you notice these signs in your own child or any other child, it is important to get help immediately. The National Suicide Hotline, (800)-SUICIDE, is staffed 24 hours a day.