Suicide clusters are generally defined as groups of suicides, suicide attempts, or both that are closer in time and space than normally expected in a given location. Suicide contagion is a related concept whereby susceptible persons are thought to be influenced toward suicidal behavior as a result of knowledge of another person’s suicidal act. Suicide pacts describe the suicides of two or more individuals with an agreed-upon plan to die together or separately and closely timed. This essay discusses each of these concepts.
Suicide clusters usually occur among high-risk young people. Clusters primarily refer to a statistical phenomenon and may or may not involve a relationship between victims. There may be no identifiable connection between incidents of suicide within a particular cluster. Some evidence has shown no relationship between suicides in a cluster other than geographic location. Other evidence indicates that the individuals may have known about another’s death, although they may not have known the other victim personally. It is also posited that people who are vulnerable to suicide may associate with each other, so the suicide of one may increase the risk for the group. Regardless of the dynamics, suicide clusters can create a crisis atmosphere in the local community. As such, prevention efforts are often focused at the community level. Measures to prevent additional suicides include identification of susceptible individuals, that is, friends of those who have died and persons with previous attempts, and other postvention strategies (i.e., actions taken after a suicide) that help decrease the emotional distress of affected individuals and defuse tension and fear in the impacted community.
There is a great deal of debate as to the validity of suicide contagion. Groups of suicides classified as resulting from contagion are often characterized by either a direct or indirect relationship among victims. Some evidence indicates that exposure to real or fictional accounts of suicide, including media coverage of suicide, intensive reporting of the suicide of a celebrity, or the fictional representation of a suicide in a popular movie or television program is a potential risk factor in prompting contagious suicidal behavior. In addition, there is some evidence that suicide clusters have a contagious influence.
Suicide pacts have usually involved small groups of people such as intimate partners, family members, or close friends who are generally older and whose motivations may be intensely personal and individual. A new phenomenon is a suicide pact between individuals who meet on the Internet. Reports of Internet generated suicide pacts have come from the United States and other countries. Although research is greatly needed, Internet-related suicide pacts appear to differ markedly from types of suicide pacts recorded throughout most of history. Known Internet suicide pacts involve young people almost exclusively and tend to be between complete strangers or individuals with platonic friendships.
- O’Carroll, P. W., & Mercy, J. A. (1990). Responding to community identified suicide clusters: Statistical verification of the cluster is not the primary issue. American Journal of Epidemiology, 132, S196–S202.
- Mercy, J. A., Kresnow, M., O’Carroll, P. W., Lee, R. K., Powell, K. E., Potter, L. B., et al. (2001). Is suicide contagious? A study of the relation between exposure to the suicidal behavior of others and nearly lethal suicide attempts. American Journal of Epidemiology, 154, P120–P127.
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