The idea of a teen committing suicide and of a young life being abbreviated is almost too painful to think about. Nonetheless, it does happen. Teens get depressed, anxious and experience life stressors; some do contemplate suicide and others ultimately go on to pull the trigger on their lives.
A new study suggests that the phenomenom of "suicide contagion" is sadly alive and well among teens. In a study recently reported on in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, pre-teens and teens who had experienced the death of a peer by suicide who also attended their school were at increased risk to have suicidal thoughts. It is crucial to mention that this was the case whether or not they knew the peer. This study looked at a large number of pre-teens and teens from the ages of 12- 17. This population surveyed were from all across the U.S. and were not limited to a single geographical region. This "suicide contagion" effect is sadly pervasive.
It was particularly interesting and somewhat shocking that 12- to 13-year-olds were most affected by the suicide of a peer. There are many explanations that may explain this effect. It is likely that the 12- to 13-year-olds had the most limited repertoire of coping skills and now had a new and frightening coping/problem-solving strategy at hand.
I am extremely concerned about the results of this study and its implications for all of our teens. It is my experience that parents of pre-teens and teens are more likely to talk to their kids about alcohol, drugs and sexuality and are less likely to discuss depression and anxiety, both items that may lead to suicidal thoughts and behavior. Our impressionable teens may be at risk to deal with these unacknowledged feelings in a dangerous manner, particularly after learning of a peer's suicide. In an effort to decrease the "suicide contagion" effect, I suggest the following:
1. Parents need to talk to their teens about emotional issues and safety issues.
2. Parents should talk to teens about the suicide of a peer even if the peer was not a friend to their kids. Discuss how to deal with feelings that may be overwhelming. Do mood checks by talking to your child and if they seem very emotionally distressed, seek therapy.
3. Following a suicide, school personnel need to provide crisis counseling and opportunities to talk to all members of the school community. We have learned that a teen does not need to be a friend to the peer who died tragically to experience their own set of suicidal feelings.
4. Neither school personnel nor parents should assume that teens forget about the suicide a few weeks later. It appears that they may be thinking about it for months or even years.
5. We all need to teach our preteens and teens the vocabulary of emotion. If your kids sense that something is amiss with a classmate or schoolmate then they should confide in a trusted adult.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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