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Teen suicide clusters: more than mimicry.

Teen suicide clusters: More than mimicry

In the first study of its kind looking at teenage suicide clusters -- "outbreaks" of suicide in which several young people in a community take their own lives within a relatively short time -- researchers find no evidence that people not already at risk of suicide are more likely to take their own lives after exposure to other suicides.

The study of two Texas clusters occurring in 1983 and 1984 reveals that the teenage victims had no more exposure to other suicides -- either among friends or through news reports -- than did matched controls who did not commit suicide. But exposure to suicides may profoundly affect individuals already at risk of killing themselves, the researchers say. Therefore, they conclude, "it would be prudent to curtail the excesses in public exposure to suicide."

Each year in the United States more than 6,000 youths take their own lives -- a rate triple that of 30 years ago. Until recently, when drug wars boosted homicides to record heights among 15- to 24-years-olds, suicide represented the second leading cause of death in this age group.

But while psychologists have defined a host of personal and social traits clearly associated with suicide risk, they continue to debate the extent to which a young peson's exposure to other youth suicides enhances his or her risk of imitating that act.

Although recent studies have begun to change early impressions that television coverage might be a major factor leading to serial suicides (SN: 10/3/87, p. 218), the evidence has been mixed. In part, the problem has stemmed from methodological flaws. For example, some large epidemiologic studies looking for increases in suicide rates associated with suicide depictions in the news or on soap operas failes to determine whether those who took their own lives soon after those broadcasts had actually seen the shows.

While working with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, psychiatrist Lucy E. Davidson (now in private practice) sought to overcome the methodological weaknesses in previous studies. She and her colleagues undertook a case-controlled analysis of the Texas clusters -- one involving eight suicides and the other involving six -- looking at a variety of suicide risk factors in those who killed themselves and in matched controls who did not.

Although the researchers found no significant correlation between the act of suicide and direct or indirect exposure to a previous suicide, they did find that those who took their own lives were more likely to have accumulated classic suicide risk factors before the outbreak began. These included previous suicide attempts, having a close friend or relative who died violently, multiple changes of hometown or schools, and recent breakups with a girlfriend or boyfriend.

Nonetheless, the researchers write in the Nov. 17 JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, "romanticized or sensational media coverage may foster an affinity with those who commit suicide and confer an aura of celebrity on them." In suicide-susceptible individuals, this could evoke the impression that suicide is a "powerful act" that will claim special -- albeit posthumous -- attention from their family and peers. For these reasons, Davidson's group recommends against large memorial gathering at schools and repetitive media coverage that provides graphic details of suicides.
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Author:Weiss, R.
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 25, 1989
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