Teen Suicide is Contagious, and the Problem is Worse Than We Thought
Riley knew of at least two of the kids who had killed themselves the previous winter: an older girl at school (they had mutual friends) and a boy in her Christian youth group. Such peripheral connections are all that seem to connect most of the kids in the area who had killed themselves, and school and county officials began to worry they were witnessing a copycat effect…until copycat became too weak a word. It was more like an outbreak, a plague spreading through school hallways.
About a year after Sjoerdsma and her daughter last spoke about suicide, Riley was staying at her father’s house one night when she downed a small bottle of whiskey, then sent out a series of troubling texts and Snapchat messages. “I’m sorry it had to be me,” she wrote to one friend. Then she slipped on a blue Patagonia fleece and snuck out the basement window, carrying her father’s gun.
The next morning, they found her body in the woods behind her father’s house. She’d shot herself in the head.
Sociologists have long said people who form bonds are less likely to kill themselves, but sometimes the opposite is true—studies now show that one person’s suicidal behavior can spur another’s, and one death can lead to more deaths.
Decades of research prove that a startling range of emotions and behaviors can be contagious—from moodiness to yawning. Young people are especially susceptible; they obsess over fads and fashion trends and copy illicit behaviors from peers, such as smoking, drinking or speeding. Or suicide.