A suicide cluster, mental health professionals say, is when three or more suicides occur in a community over a short period of time. On average, there are five such clusters each year in the United States, according to psychiatric epidemiologist Madelyn Gould of Columbia University. Ms. Gould, who was featured in a recent report on National Public Radio, has been studying 50 suicide clusters from the past decade. A string of teen suicides in the Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville and Rockland area in 2001 may be among the clusters Ms. Gould is studying in Maine.
The most distinctive feature of suicide clusters is that the victims are teens, Ms. Gould told NPR. Teens are vulnerable for a number of reasons. They are “intensely focused on other teenagers,” she said, and imitate their peers in what is known as “social modeling.” It’s what parents used to call peer pressure. Peers “replace family members and other adults as the most influential group,” Ms. Gould said. “And suicide is another behavior that can be modeled, unfortunately.”
Teens also are impulsive by nature. There is a physiological component to this fact; complex cognitive brain functions, such as planning ahead and problem solving, take place in a part of the brain that is still maturing in teens.
But the greatest risk factors are depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Parents, schools and physicians must be vigilant in screening for these.
So far, Ms. Gould has not identified a community profile that is vulnerable to a suicide cluster. In 2001, when the Camden area saw four suicides among teens, some observers blamed what they said were the heightened expectations of success in the community, and the tension between teens who hailed from wealthy households and those who came from homes of more modest means. It was an unfair assessment, it now seems, given some of Ms. Gould’s other findings.
When the Camden community recorded its fourth suicide in November 2001, it followed other tragedies. A high school student had drowned earlier in the fall, and the previous summer, two sisters — recent high school grads — were killed in a car accident. The murder victim in a murder-suicide involving adults the previous winter was the daughter of the high school’s assistant principal, so the school community was very aware of the tragedy.
Which leads to Ms. Gould’s findings regarding the media’s role. If the first suicide in a cluster is widely reported, it is more likely to trigger others. Newspapers do not report suicides, unless they occur in very public ways, but the media must be sensitive in its coverage.
And suicide has always been contagious, as was first observed in the 1700s when a spurned young lover took his life. Other young men dressed as he did and ended their lives in the same manner. After Marilyn Monroe killed herself, a high percentage of blond women who identified with the ac-tress took their lives. Some struggling musicians committed suicide after rock star Kurt Cobain ended his life.
All this points to the need for more vigilance on the part of parents, educators, physicians, journalists and others when it comes to suicide.