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Suicide Clusters

At New York University last fall, the semester began on a tragic note with the death of three students within a four-week period.

All three deaths were suspected of being suicide.

If the students indeed died by their own hand (all died from falls from atop campus buildings), it wouldn’t surprise an FSU suicide expert. Last fall, psychologist Thomas Joiner published findings on a study of the phenomenon of suicide “clusters”—episodes of multiple suicides by people whose close friends or a mutually admired individual killed themselves.

But the study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, challenges the idea that imitation plays the biggest role in suicide clusters.

“Suicides do appear to cluster, leading to the impression that they are ‘contagious’ or that imitation may play a role,” says Joiner. “But it may not happen that way. It could be the result of vulnerable people who, having sought each other out, are reacting to the same general social environment.”

Joiner studied 138 pairs of college roommates and found that those who chose to live together were more similar on a suicide index than roommates who were randomly assigned together by housing authorities. Stress in the roommate relationship increased the similarity in roommates’ suicide levels, he found.

“Vulnerable people are not randomly distributed in the population, but rather (they) may be more likely to form relationships,” he said. “This process prearranges suicide clusters, which then may be activated by any number of severe stress factors that affect the members of the cluster.”

Some people also may become simultaneously suicidal after a shared event that may have nothing to do with them personally. Researchers are no longer surprised when suicide increases after the death of celebrities, for example. — (based on an article prepared by The FSU Media Relations Office.)