Study: Social connectedness can yield suicide clusters

"Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of this study is that it highlights the downside to social connectedness," said researcher Anna S. Mueller.
By Brooks Hays   |   Sept. 9, 2016 at 5:29 PM

CHICAGO, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- When a string of teen suicides happens in succession, they're called suicide clusters or copycat suicides. New research suggests certain community dynamics can encourage suicide clusters and hinder suicide prevention efforts.

According to the new study -- published this week in the journal American Sociological Review -- communities with a high degree of "social connectedness" and an homogeneous group of people are more likely than other communities to experience suicide clusters.

Social connectedness is often associated with strong systems of support. But the new research suggests the condition can prevent vulnerable teens from seeking help.

When a pair of researchers examined the characteristics of a small upper-middle-class community, host to at least four clusters during the last 15 years, they discovered an intense pressure for teens to succeed academically and athletically. The sociologists relied on interviews and focus groups for their research.

Their findings suggest high expectations and a narrow definition of success weighed heavily on local teens and may contribute to suicidal thoughts. Researchers also determined that a high degree of social connectedness, increasing the chance that private information becomes public, discouraged parents and teens from seeking help for mental health issues.

"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," researcher Anna S. Mueller, an assistant professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago, said in a news release.

"It also helps explain why some schools with intense academic pressure have problems with suicide while others do not," Mueller explained. "It's not just the pressure: It's the pressure combined with certain community factors that can make asking for help harder to do."

Most research on suicide has focused on the vulnerability of socially isolated teens. Mueller and her research partner Seth Abrutyn, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, suggest more work needs to be done to examine the risk of suicide within socially integrated communities.

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