Tragically, the number of adolescents who die by suicide has drastically increased over the past decade. And due to a phenomenon called suicide contagion, one teen’s suicide can trigger others to make an attempt. These clusters of teenage suicides may occur around the same time period—perhaps after a celebrity’s death by suicide—or may take place within a school or city.
It’s hard to believe that such a dangerous and potentially fatal act as a suicide attempt could be contagious. However, records of suicide contagion go as far back as the 1700s. And a large body of research has yielded proof that teen suicide can be contagious.
- Suicide contagion is a phenomenon whereby an individual’s death by suicide increases the chances of other suicide attempts.
- Teenagers are more vulnerable to suicide contagion than adults.
- Frequent and sensationalistic media reports about suicide can contribute to suicide contagion.
- Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression increase the risk of teenage suicide contagion.
What Is Suicide Contagion?
Suicide contagion is also referred to as “copycat suicides.” It refers to an increase in the likelihood that a suicide or suicide attempt will prompt more suicidal behavior or deaths by suicide within the same school, community, or geographic area.
Sometimes suicide contagion occurs in response to the suicide of a peer or family member. It can also happen in response to a celebrity suicide. Suicide contagion often coincides with media reports about the suicide. It’s most prevalent among teenagers and young adults who are already at risk of suicide or suicidal behavior.
Spikes in the number of suicides are called suicide clusters. Point clusters are clusters of suicides centered in communities where people are directly exposed to the suicide of a classmate, friend, or family member. Mass clusters are clusters of suicides that seem to occur as a result of indirect exposure to a suicide. Such exposure might include media reports about a celebrity suicide or the suicide of a fictional character in a movie or TV show.
Statistics on Teen Suicide
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an increase in youth suicide. But suicide rates were on the rise even before the pandemic. Between 2010 and 2020, suicide rates in US adolescents increased by 62 percent, from 3.9 to 6.3 per 100,000. Moreover, a recent study tracked a 22 percent increase in the number of visits to emergency departments for youth suicide attempts and an 8 per cent increase in visits for suicidal ideation.
This uptick is echoed in the CDC’s 2021 Youth Behavior Risk Survey. The survey found that 22 percent of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide. That’s 1 in 3 teenage girls and 1 in 7 teenage boys. In fact, 30 percent of female students seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021 compared to 19 percent in 2011.
Research on the Teen Suicide Contagion Effect
The teen suicide contagion effect is real. More common among young people, suicide clusters account for 1 to 5 percent of teen suicides in the United States, according to the CDC. Teenagers with a friend or family member who died by suicide are at significantly higher risk of suicide than those without.
Likewise, a study by the American Association of Suicidology found that the risk of suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds is two to four times higher following exposure to another person’s suicide. And the effects can linger. Exposure to a schoolmate’s attempted or successful suicide can affect suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among youth two years after the fact.
Moreover, suicide research shows that acquaintances and friends who aren’t as close to the deceased are at greater risk of contemplating suicide and engaging in suicidal behavior. That appears to be because they typically receive less support than closer friends and family members.
Not surprisingly, publicity surrounding suicides has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in death by suicide, especially among young people. Research finds an increase in suicide when a higher proportion of the population is exposed. The risk of suicide contagion also goes up when the frequency and prominence of the news reports increases, and when the headlines are dramatic.
Examples of Teen Suicide Contagion
Teen suicide contagion isn’t a new phenomenon. One of the earliest suicide clusters occurred back in 1774. Upon publication of the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Wolfgang von Goethe, about 40 young people committed suicide in a similar way to the book’s main character. This spate of suicides led to the banning of the book in countries like Italy and Denmark.
Other examples of teen suicide contagion have occurred in the United States much more recently. Between 2009 and 2010, six teens committed suicide in the affluent town of Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. Four more committed suicide there between October of 2014 and March of 2015. Fairfax County, Virginia experienced 16 youth suicides in 2014. Other clusters have occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado (2017), and Salt Lake City, Utah (2018).
Suicide contagion has also been tracked among soldiers, many of whom are young adults. A 2017 study found that the risk of suicide attempts among US Army soldiers increased as the number of suicide attempts in their unit went up.
Celebrity Suicide Contagion
Sociologist David Phillips published the first scientific study on suicide contagion. Referencing the copycat suicides following publication of Goethe’s novel, he dubbed the phenomenon the “Werther Effect.”
In his research, Phillips tracked every time The New York Times published a story about the suicide of a famous person. And he found that the suicide rate increased by almost 12 percent the month after that story. For example, Marilyn Monroe’s death was ruled a probable suicide in August of 1962. The next month, the suicide rate increased by 12 percent. Similarly, in the five months following the 2014 suicide of comedian Robin Williams, the suicide rate went up by close to 10 percent.
Copycat Suicides and the Media
Scientific evidence shows a stronger link between suicide contagion and news reports about suicide vs. fictional depictions of suicide in the media. However, fiction still has an impact. In the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, the 17-year-old protagonist decides to kill herself after struggling with betrayal, bullying, and assault.
The finale graphically depicted her suicide, sparking debate about the show’s public health implications. Some hoped the series would raise suicide awareness. Others warned it would promote suicide by glamorizing the act. The latter fears weren’t unfounded. In the three months following the release of 13 Reasons Why, one study found a 29 percent increase in the suicide rate of 10- to 17-year-olds.
Other Types of Contagion in Teens
Suicide contagion is a form of social contagion. Social contagion involves emotions, behaviors, or conditions spreading through a group of people. In general, there is no intentional influence on the part of the initiator or initiators.
One example of a modern social contagion is the increase in the number of teenage girls and young women developing verbal and physical Tourette’s-like tics. They became known as “TikTok Tics.” That’s because the social media app TikTok seems to play a part in triggering or exacerbating the behaviors, which include explosive vocal utterings, involuntary muscle contractions, and twitching.
Researchers discovered that the symptoms were spreading virally through social media. Specifically, they spread via teen and young adult influencers documenting their Tourette’s or tic disorders in TikTok videos. The study found that 68 percent of teen girls with tics said they’d developed them due to viewing tic-related videos on TikTok.
Additionally, eating disorders and teen cutting behavior are other examples of the possible harmful effects of social contagion. Social platforms escalate these self-destructive behaviors by connecting vulnerable teens to others with similar challenges.
Why Teens Are at Risk for Suicide Contagion
Teenagers are more vulnerable than other age groups to contagious suicide. This may be because young people identify more strongly with their peers. In addition, adolescence is a period of increased vulnerability to mental disorders, which can elevate suicide risk.
Moreover, teenagers’ brains aren’t fully mature. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for functions such as impulse control, emotional reactions, the ability to ignore external distractions, and complex decision-making. And these functions are still developing during the teen years. As a result, teens can be moody and impulsive. They have difficulty stepping back from a situation or emotion in order to see the long view.
“The kids at greatest risk are the ones who are already emotionally vulnerable and those who believe their classmate solved their problems through suicide.”Kimberly O’Brien, PhD, research scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital, co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk
What’s Underneath Teen Suicide Contagion and High Teen Suicide Rates?
Few teenagers make a suicide attempt on a whim. Risk factors must be present, particularly the presence of mental health disorders. Mental health issues increase the risk of teenage suicide. About 90 percent of people who commit suicide have suffered from at least one mental disorder. For females, depression is the most common suicide cause. For males, substance abuse, specifically alcohol misuse, is associated with suicide risk.
The World Health Organization reports that 1 in 7 (14 percent) of 10- to 19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder. In the US, 16 percent of adolescents experience major depression, per 2023 teen depression statistics from Mental Health America (MHA). Yet many mental health conditions remain unrecognized and untreated. In the United States, 60 percent of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment, according to MHA.
10 Signs of Teen Suicide Risk
Before attempting suicide, a teenager may engage in suicidal ideation. Also referred to as suicidal thoughts, suicide ideation may range from thinking about dying with no real intent, to creating a specific plan for suicide.
It’s crucial to be aware of the warning signs of teen suicide risk and teen suicidal behaviors. Warning signs include:
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and usual activities
- Changes in sleep or appetite patterns
- Increased alcohol or drug abuse
- Giving away belongings, including treasured objects
- Unnecessary risk-taking
- Extreme mood swings
- Believing they are a burden to others
- Saying they feel trapped and that there’s no way out
- Obsession with death and dying, talking about wanting to die
- Hinting at suicide, such as, “I won’t be a problem much longer,” or “If anything happens to me …”
Preventing Teen Suicide Contagion
Learning of a teenager’s suicide can traumatize an entire community. Vulnerable adolescents in the deceased’s neighborhood, school, place of worship, and beyond may feel particularly disturbed by the news. Preventing teen suicide contagion requires that parents, schools, and the media take proactive steps.
What the Media Can Do
The association between a media-driven suicide story and suicide contagion has prompted the need for guidelines. When reporting on suicide, media professionals should follow guidelines such as:
- Ensuring that suicide reports are factual and succinct
- Refraining from describing the method used to commit suicide
- Not oversimplifying an individual’s reasons for suicide
- Avoiding glamorizing those who die by suicide, or suggesting suicide helped them achieve their goals
- Providing information about suicide prevention hotlines and other avenues those considering suicide can turn to for help
When musician Kurt Cobain died by suicide in 1994, there was great concern that a suicide contagion would follow. But the “Werther Effect” didn’t occur in this case. However, there was a significant increase in suicide crisis calls following Cobain’s death. The apparent lack of copycat suicides may be because the city of Seattle, where Cobain lived, set up a crisis center and increased community outreach. In addition, the media focused on suicide prevention and intervention when reporting on Cobain’s death. And they included the number of the Seattle Crisis Clinic in all local media coverage.
What Schools Can Do
Schools are a central element of suicide prevention. Teachers, mental health professionals, and all personnel who interface with students can help reduce teen suicide risk and suicide death. A comprehensive approach is required. Schools can help identify students at risk and create reliable response channels when a suicide risk is identified or a suicide death occurs.
Therefore, schools should have comprehensive suicide prevention policies in place. They also should require annual training for all staff, and offer mental health presentations to parents and students. They can even form suicide prevention task forces to be on the lookout for students at risk. Finally, schools can post suicide warning signs with national crisis hotline numbers and information about who students can contact if they or someone they know might be suicidal.
What Parents Can Do
It’s important that suicide not be a taboo subject in the home. Parents and other caregivers should check in with their children, letting them know it’s safe to express sad and uncomfortable feelings. If a teenager in the community has died by suicide, parents shouldn’t emphasize the method of suicide. But they can explain that the young person who died was struggling with a mental health problem.
They can also let teens know that if they or their peers are contemplating suicide, a mental health professional can help. They can help teens access professional support, and make sure they know that they can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.
Suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior in teens should never be ignored. Teens at risk of suicide are in need of support. Parents or caregivers must be involved in their care, so teens know they’re not alone.
Treatment for Depression and Suicidal Behavior in Teens
At Newport Academy, teens at risk of suicide benefit from an integrated treatment approach that goes beyond the immediate crisis situation. We support teens in healing the root causes of suicidal ideation and building healthy coping skills. In our residential and outpatient treatment programs, teenagers receive individualized treatment plans that include clinical and experiential modalities, family therapy, and life skills training.
Contact us today to learn more about our nationwide adolescent treatment locations and to schedule a mental health assessment, by phone or in person. We look forward to supporting your teen in taking the next steps to building a hopeful future.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s an example of a contagion?
COVID-19 is an example of a disease contagion that spread around the globe. Mental health issues can also “spread” via exposure. The increase in teenage girls developing verbal and physical tics by watching other teens document their tic disorders on TikTok is an example of a social contagion.
What is a synonym for suicide contagion?
A synonym for suicide contagion is “copycat suicides.”
What is media suicide contagion?
Media suicide contagion is an increase in the number of suicide deaths following sensationalized media coverage of an individual’s suicide. A TV show or movie might also lead to a rise in teen suicides.
Is suicide contagion in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why?
The first season of the show depicted the aftermath of the suicide of a teen girl. Subsequent seasons depicted at least one additional teen suicide attempt, showing a contagion. After the show aired, an increase in the number of teenage suicides followed.
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