A new study illustrates how the homogeneous culture and high degree of social connectedness of a community can increase suicide risk, particularly among teenagers. These kinds of conditions can contribute to clusters where several suicides happen around the same time and in the same areas.
Little is understood about why suicide cluster happen and how to stop them. For the study, published in American Sociological Review, researchers examined a suburban, upper-middle-class community that had experienced at least four clusters in the last 15 years.
The findings highlight an intense pressure to succeed—coupled with narrowly defined ideals that teens should be academically and athletically exceptional. When fear of not living up to such ideals is combined with how easy it is for private information to become public, teens and parents may be unwilling to seek help for mental health problems.
“Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of this study is that it highlights the downside to social connectedness, something that is usually touted as a key tool for suicide prevention,” says Anna S. Mueller, assistant professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.
“It also helps explain why some schools with intense academic pressure have problems with suicide while others do not. It’s not just the pressure: It’s the pressure combined with certain community factors that can make asking for help harder to do.”
Suicide prevention has traditionally focused on the downsides of social isolation and the role of mental illness. But the new findings show how community needs to be considered when assessing vulnerabilities, and why prevention organizations should no longer view social connectedness exclusively as a positive force in measuring suicide risk.
The study began with a look at Suicide, written by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in 1897. While his assertion that a socially isolated individual is more prone to suicide remains a cornerstone of prevention, much less attention has been given to his discussion of how high levels of integration in society also can create risk.
The researchers then focused on a single community, in which 19 students or recent graduates of the local high school had committed suicide between 2000 and 2015.
To prevent these cluster suicides, communities should offer programs to help students navigate perceived failure and academic stresses and should also consider that social connectedness isn’t always a good thing.
“Since Durkheim’s important work, sociology has contributed surprisingly little to understanding and preventing suicide, particularly compared to psychology and epidemiology,” Mueller says. “This is unfortunate since sociologists have the theoretical and empirical tools necessary to examine some fundamental unanswered questions about suicide, one of the most important being: ‘How do we stop suicide clusters from happening?'”
Source: University of Chicago