Suicide and School Contagion

By Katharinewillis. (Own work.) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
In viewing a school as an ecosystem, we acknowledge that a thriving school community is generated by strong relationships. This is why we view a school as a network.
In social networks, such interconnectedness and interdependency can be source of resiliency, but can also provide a susceptibility to contagion, such as by physical viruses or—more obliquely—to negative behavior or mental models.
An example of this can be found in a mental health study that found that suicide can be “contagious” for teenagers in a school. In an article on Reuters entitled “Schoolmates of suicide victims at higher risk,” Kathryn Doyle reports that the researchers “were surprised that the effect lasted so long and just how strong it was.”
For example, “for 12- and 13-year olds, they were approximately five times more likely to report thinking about suicide” if they had been exposed to a schoolmate’s suicide. And this effect is not simply right after the tragic event has occurred. It persists. “Though the current study indicates the effect persists for at least two years, Zenere believes it may go on even longer” (bold added).
So what can a school do to address the persistence of suicidal ideation?

“Based on the results, school “post-vention” programs should encompass the whole school, not just those closest to the deceased, and should perhaps revisit parts of the intervention months and years down the line, Colman said” (bold added).

But what does it mean to “encompass the whole school,” especially when funding and resources for such programs are low? If you recall, we explored a study that found that randomized vaccinations can be just as effective in managing outbreaks of disease than rounding up every last person. The researchers suggested that “when resources are limited, treatment should be distributed to a larger percentage of the population in a few random, closely distributed pulses, rather than many smaller pulses distributed to fewer people.”

What this could mean, hypothetically, is that if a tragedy such as a suicide occurs at a school, rather than seeking to counsel every single student to prevent suicidal ideation, counselors could randomly select clusters of students from each grade.

Would this be effective and would it reduce persistence of the contagious effects of a schoolmate’s suicide? Would such a strategy also be effective for other programs such as bullying prevention or reducing teen pregnancy?

Further research needs to conducted.

One last thing to note. Contagion in a social network can be a positive or a negative thing. Geoffrey Canada tries to incorporate this power through his idea of “contamination.” He seeks to change the communities that children live within, rather than isolate them.

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