Why are so many of our young people committing suicide? I have heard it can be because of kids copying the behaviour of others, but I fail to see how the pain and devastation that suicide causes would motivate a youth to do the same. -R, Whangarei
Studies generally support the idea that suicide clusters do exist. And we know that people bereaved by suicide are themselves at greater risk of committing suicide.
One explanation is that humans as social animals learn by imitating the behaviour of others. Sometimes this is a positive thing: if someone in your social circle quits smoking or loses weight, their behaviour is contagious but in a positive way. Your odds of quitting smoking or losing weight go up.
Likewise, when someone is considering committing a socially unacceptable act, like beating their kids or taking their own life, knowing someone else who has done it helps turn what might be a previously unimaginable act into a realistic option.
Teens may be especially susceptible to this form of social learning - it's at this age that parents stop being the most important influence, and friends become the centre of their social universe, their reference point for how to behave.
For what little we understand of the workings of the human mind, at least one basic fact about suicide is widely agreed upon: about 90 per cent of suicides occur in people who have mood disorders (depression) or substance abuse.
Both are treatable, if recognised, but the problem is that many people are unwilling to admit their depression, or to agree to psychiatric help or take medication.
Psychiatric problems are seen as a weakness, a stigma. Getting teens to admit abuse, social isolation, or despair is another thing. In almost the opposite way, substance abuse is so ingrained in our culture that for a teen to not drink is considered abnormal. The Health Promotion Agency says that one in six adults will have a substance abuse problem in their lifetimes. Perhaps youth suicide is just the most visible tip of a much bigger iceberg. Year to year we might see variations in the overall number of suicides, but they may just be a marker for much deeper problems of social distress, depression, and alcohol abuse.