Breaking the ripple effects of suicide


MIND MOVES:Let’s make young people part of the solution, writes TONY BATES

THERE IS significant evidence that one suicide in a community can influence the occurrence of further suicides. How this happens exactly is not clear, but the term used to describe this phenomenon is “contagion”. Contagion is defined as exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviours within one’s family, one’s peer group or one’s community that can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviours.

Contagions have mostly involved adolescents and young adults. Studies show that approximately one-quarter of adolescents have experienced suicidal thoughts, which makes this population highly vulnerable to contagion.

How do we “break” the disturbing ripple effects of suicide? In Scotland, they suggest targeting communities where three or more teen suicides occur. Since the 1980s, they noticed that the link between youth suicides and social disadvantage had become stronger.

In the US, guidelines for breaking the contagion of suicides emphasise targeting the media: highlighting the devastating consequences of suicide rather than speculate about its causes.

All studies agree that the greatest need in communities following suicide is to reduce the distress of those most immediately affected. Close friends and family members of the deceased need a competent person with whom they can make sense of their loss, in as much as that is possible.

Counselling for the bereaved – a service that organisations such as Console do so well – is really important. Of the many factors that can trigger a cluster of suicides in a community, unresolved or complicated bereavement can be the most critical.

I remember a young woman whose mother took her life when she was only 17 years old. A few months later, she asked me why she shouldn’t do the same, if she were to hit a difficult patch in her life. Her rationale was that if it was good enough for her mother, why would it not be good enough for her. This was a very real and valid question for her that needed to be sensitively explored.

Young adolescent boys may remain vulnerable in the aftermath of a family suicide for several years. It can often take that long for them to “let in” the full impact of their loss, and when they do, their inner turmoil may be expressed in behaviours that seem reckless and uncharacteristic for them.

But there are others who are also at risk in the aftermath of suicide and who are often overlooked. Close friends who may have been privy to conversations about suicide on the part of a deceased friend can often feel a tremendous burden of guilt. Young people who were first on the scene, and who may have tried to resuscitate the deceased, may remain traumatised for some time afterwards.

Youth workers, gardaí and teachers are often the people most likely to encounter this “at risk” group, but often they feel they lack the confidence and expertise to handle the situation. And all too often it can be next to impossible for them to access guidance, support and advice from statutory services. In some communities, all of these agencies have come together following multiple suicides to support one another and to identify clear pathways to care for those most at risk.

As communities we need to find ways to engage our young people before whatever difficulty they face becomes a suicidal crisis. We need to give them the supports and skills they need to face their lives. But we also need to listen to young people in our communities who choose to stay alive, day after day, in spite of everything that is wrong in their lives.

Young people, particularly those who survive the more insane elements of our culture, have a lot to teach us about the solutions that work. And they may have a lot to say to their peers who hit a wall and feel that they can’t go on. Let’s make young people part of the solution to breaking suicide clusters.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health (

Thanks to the National Suicide Research Foundation for its help in researching this column