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The Suicide Contagion Effect in Teens

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

In Palo Alto, California, the teen suicide rate is about five times the nation’s average. In this affluent Bay Area town, seven adolescents ended their own lives in the span of just ten years.

Many of these suicides happened in waves, or clusters. A suicide cluster, according to the CDC, is “a group of suicides or suicide attempts, or both, that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.”

The first suicide cluster in Palo Alto was in 2009-2010. Six students took their own lives within several months of each other. Four of them were students at the same high school. Then, a couple years later in 2014-2015, four more teens in Palo Alto completed suicide.

Why Suicide Clusters Develop

Research shows that suicides tend to be contagious, especially among teens and adolescents. This is known as the suicide contagion effect. This effect is also what’s responsible for copycat suicides. In copycat suicides, victims are triggered by another person’s suicide and learn suicide-related behaviors from them.

Suicide clusters or copycat suicides occur when news of the suicide impacts one’s social circle, and/or people identify with the suicide victim.

This is why people often blame the media for suicide clusters or copycat suicides.

For example, many mental health professionals argued that the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why glamorized suicide. Its 17-year-old protagonist, a suicide victim who decided to end her life after struggling with betrayal, bullying, and assault. Experts worried that the show romanticized the fictional suicide of the main character. They were concerned this glorification/romanticizing would result in an increase in actual teen suicides.

They were right.

Not only did research studies associate the show with more suicide-related Internet searches, experts also found that actual teen suicides seemed to increase in the three months after the show. In the three months following the release of 13 Reasons Why, when public interest was highest, as measured by social media discussions about the show, adolescent suicides increased in the U.S. by 12-21%. Compared to the same time in previous years, there were about 100 more completed adolescent suicides than usual.

Mental Health Issues in the Bay Area

According to a CDC Epi-Aid investigation, the media was also partly to blame for the wave of Bay Area teen suicides.

In response to the unusual number of adolescent suicides in Santa Clara County, the CDC sent out an emergency team to investigate the situation in 2016. This Epi-Aid team wanted to understand why suicide rates in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill were higher than the national average.

First, according to their qualitative research, the Epi-Aid found that a high percentage of teens in Santa Clara County struggled with mental health problems. Many of the teen suicide victims, as well as other adolescents who struggled with suicidal attempts or self-injurious behavior, had gone through a recent crisis. Other risk factors for suicidal ideation, the experts found, included substance use (recreational drugs, alcohol, pain medication), bullying, LGBT orientation, sexual behavior, school delinquency, and feeling a lack of purpose in life. An unusually high number of teens in Santa Clara County – including those in Palo Alto, Morgan Hill, San Jose, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Cupertino, and Campbell – faced this same set of risks.

What Caused These Clusters?

One investigative reporter for The Atlantic, determined to understand why so many Silicon Valley teens were tragically killing themselves, found that a root cause behind many of these teens’ behavioral issues was the unique, overwhelming pressure that these elite students faced from their parents and schools. For example, one Silicon Valley teen hospitalized for a suicide attempt and substance use overdose admitted that academic pressure, combined with physical exhaustion from lack of sleep due to her myriad extracurricular activities, was eventually what drove her to the brink.

“I was exhausted to the bone,” she told the Atlantic. “I remember just not being happy about anything, and I just couldn’t make it slow down. And I thought there would never be any escape…I also felt like I was already saying that I was too stressed, and nobody – neither my parents nor my teachers – seemed to care or take me seriously.”

So – parental pressure had something to do with the suicides.

But how did the media affect the situation?

Suicide Clusters in Palo Alto

And why did so many of the Palo Alto suicides happen so close together, in clusters?

As we mentioned, the Epi-Aid team found that inappropriate media portrayals of the initial Bay Area suicides may have triggered copycat suicides.

When examining the news articles around the initial suicides, the Epi-Aid investigation found that most of the media reports:

  • Titled their articles with sensational headlines
  • Included details of the method/location of the suicide
  • Included photos of students grieving
  • Oversimplified the suicide
  • Included open comments section, which many teens used to share memories of the victim

On average, each article reporting on suicide had four of these negative characteristics. Almost all of them described the method of suicide in the text. The CDC found that all of these negative factors may have contributed to the suicide contagion effect. In other words, reading these articles may have inspired other teens to commit suicide as well.

The CDC’s Epi-Aid concluded with several recommendations to school, health, news, and government officials in Santa Clara County. First, they advised the County to incorporate more school-based programs that focus on strengthening peer connections and fostering coping/ emotion-regulation skills among students. Second, the Epi-Aid recommended that officials encourage more family-based programming, such as parent training courses and family therapy. Third, they advised school districts to provide better access to evidence-based mental health treatment programs. Since the investigation identified mental health issues like depression as a major risk factor for suicide, they recommended that teens receive more resources to help with stress, crises, and general mental health conditions.

And finally, they warned media outlets to comply with the appropriate guidelines surrounding the way they discuss and report suicides.

Residential Treatment Programs for Suicidal Ideation

If your teen struggles with depression, anxiety, self-harming behavior, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, trauma, or any other mental health issue, never ignore their behaviors. Immediately seek out teen mental health treatment. Your teen may require a short-term adolescent residential treatment center (RTC) that specializes in suicidal ideation and attempts. Or, if your teen does not need 24/7 monitoring, they may benefit from an adolescent partial hospitalization program (PHP) or intensive outpatient program (IOP).

Additionally, seek out mental health assistance for your teen if you hear that any of their acquaintances, friends, or classmates has committed suicide. Due to the suicide contagion effect, your adolescent may be at higher risk of suicide, self-injury, or other suicide-related behaviors as well.

If your teen is considering suicide, always take immediate action:

Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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