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Teen Suicide Clusters: A Dangerous Problem 

Suicide clusters can be concerning for parents. The idea that your teenager could learn about multiple suicides and then experience suicide contagion — that is, be influenced to attempt or die by suicide — is scary.* 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1% to 5% of teen suicides in the United States occur as part of a cluster. While this is a small percentage of the overall number of teenagers taking their lives, the topic is important given the mental health crisis facing youths.    

But what exactly are suicide clusters, and why are teens particularly vulnerable to them? More importantly, how can parents respond to this problem and prevent suicide contagion?  

Jake Sparks, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Embark Behavioral Health’s treatment director, recently offered insights on the topic. His thoughts included creating a safe and supportive environment that helps teens cope better with the social influences that may nudge them toward suicidal thoughts and actions.  

What Is a Cluster Suicide? 

The CDC defines a suicide cluster as “a group of suicides, suicide attempts, or self-harm events that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.” 

According to the CDC, the two most common types are: 

  • Point clusters: A higher than expected number of suicides happen within a time period in a specific location, like a community or school. 
  • Mass clusters: A higher than expected number of suicides happen within a time period that are spread out geographically. 

In further defining suicide clusters, the CDC noted that people in a cluster don’t have to know each other. Sparks agreed with that important point, noting: 

  • Hearing about a suicide in the media, such as a celebrity taking their life, or hearing people talk about a suicide may be a risk factor, even if a teen didn’t personally know the person who passed away.  
  • Even though suicides within point clusters may be in different geographic locations, the people involved might share virtual or online spaces with teens through social media platforms.  

Age Group Most Impacted by Suicide Clusters 

According to a 2020 study on suicide clusters published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, suicides are more common among young people below the age of 25. A 2020 Esquire article covered the topic in depth, beginning with the story of an 18-year-old Arizona student-athlete who died by suicide in 2015 and a teammate who took his life the following year.  

Why is the under 25 age group most impacted by suicide clusters? According to Sparks, adolescents act more impulsively than adults, which affects their response to suicidal thoughts

“Those who struggle with suicidal thinking and/or suicidal behaviors may feel suicidal urges very intensely in the moment,” he said. “So, all the influence has to do is overcome their current ability to cope with their suicidal thoughts, and they can act on them by impulse. Adolescents are particularly prone since their brains are still developing, and they’re more impulsive than adults in most aspects of life.” 

In addition, he pointed out the importance of where teens learn about suicides. 

“Most of our adolescents are not consuming newspapers or watching CNN to see reports of suicide,” he said. “A lot of times, they’re hearing about these deaths on social media or reading about them on websites. We have to keep that in mind and realize these virtual spaces are just as important — and potentially just as dangerous — as our geographic spaces.” 

What Causes a Cluster Suicide? 

What are the factors that lead to a cluster suicide? While the causes of cluster suicide can vary, it can be influenced by the following:  

The Werther effect/suicide contagion 

The “Werther effect” refers to the copycat suicides that appear following media coverage of suicides, reading about other people taking their lives, or a close friend or family member taking their life. Those affected likely already have underlying and unaddressed mental health issues.  

According to Sparks, “The contagion of suicide exists in the exposure one has to the reports and ongoing discussion of the suicide, not necessarily the suicide itself. However, if there is a direct relationship, such as the death of a friend or family member, the suicide itself is a risk factor for future suicide.” 

Mental health issues 

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has found that most adolescents who try to take their lives have significant mental health disorders, usually depression. The academy noted that for teens, suicide attempts can be linked to stress, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, disappointment, and loss.  

Sparks noted that people who try to take their lives within a suicide cluster have the same risk factors that exist when there isn’t a suicide cluster, indicating that warning signs should always be addressed.  

Substance abuse 

Both excessive alcohol use and drug misuse are risk factors associated with suicide clusters. In addition, Sparks noted, taking certain medications can increase suicidal thinking and actions. 

How Can Suicide Clusters Be Prevented? 

As dangerous as suicide clusters can be, there are ways to prevent them.  

For instance, according to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline), stories of hope and recovery from suicidal thoughts and actions can help people get through suicidal crises. 

This approach is known as the “Papageno effect.” The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline has shared that movies, TV shows, books, blogs, social media channels, and news outlets that use the Papageno effect when reporting or discussing suicide may: 

  • Incorporate stories of hope and healing from suicidal thoughts in talking points. 
  • Practice responsible reporting by not glamorizing suicide or mentioning the means of suicide. 
  • Feature suicide prevention experts in news articles. 
  • Share resources such as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. 

If you’re concerned your teen may be having suicidal thoughts, Sparks recommended looking for warning signs including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and hopelessness as well as sudden changes in mood or different eating/sleeping patterns. Teenagers planning to take their lives may also start giving away their possessions or writing goodbye notes. 

If your teenager begins talking about suicide with you, Sparks emphasized this is actually a good sign even though it’s scary. If your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts, it’s important for you to know.

Teen discusses suicide clusters in her school with parent.
Teen discusses suicide clusters in her school with parent.

“There’s this false notion that talking to your teen about suicide, including their own suicidal thoughts or behaviors, might trigger or enable someone to make a suicide attempt,” he said, adding that it’s normal for teens to ponder the question of suicide. “But talking about suicide does not increase the odds of suicide. If anything, when a parent or trusted adult talks one on one with an adolescent, that’s one of the best protective factors.” 

Sparks encouraged listening to your teen’s thoughts on suicide and recognizing they’re taking a risk by being vulnerable with you. He added that you shouldn’t begin offering “life advice” or dismiss a child for seeking attention by expressing suicidal thoughts. 

Instead, understand your child has emotional needs that need to be met, and provide them with a safe and supportive environment. Let your teen know you’re grateful they feel comfortable talking to you about sensitive subjects. Actively listen to their concerns, and suggest making an appointment with a therapist to help process their feelings. You can find a mental health professional by using the Psychology Today search tool.  

If you’re in a crisis that requires immediate assistance, you can contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling, texting, or chatting 988.         

Cluster Suicide: Conclusion

While the idea that suicide contagion can influence your teen to try to take their life is concerning, there are steps you can take to address this problem.  

Remember, young people must cope with outside influences to keep themselves from acting impulsively on suicidal thoughts. Providing your teen with positive media influences and an environment where they can safely express their concerns can help lower the risk of suicide clusters and suicide contagion.   

“The best inoculation against cluster suicides is to talk with your kids,” Sparks said. “All of us need and want emotional intimacy and connection. Your value as a parent is in how well you listen and the safety and structure you provide.” 

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your teen is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.