By:  GTA, Published on Tue May 21 2013 (

Suicide is contagious among youth for at least two years, a new study shows.

When children commit suicide, their school peers are more likely to consider or attempt suicide, the study, published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, concluded.

With the recent suicides of Amanda Todd, 15, and Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, fresh in the consciousness of youth across Canada, the study sheds light on how school boards must react.

Dr. Ian Colman, Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology and senior author of the study, said the results were “shocking” and should influence the way school boards handle grief counselling.

Colman studied the results of a decade-long Statistics Canada survey of more than 20,000 children 12 to 17 years old; he found 12- and 13-year-olds exposed to suicide are five times more likely to “seriously consider attempting suicide.”

“The effect was equally as strong whether they knew the person who died or not,” Colman told the Star.

“When these kids are suddenly faced with a suicidal death in their own age group, vulnerable kids may start thinking about suicide as a solution to their problems.”

The theory of “suicide contagion” isn’t new, added Colman, but his study also shows it can last for more than two years, a frightening revelation.

Colman said counselling should be schoolwide, rather than for the “closest friends or immediate classmates or team members,” and available long-term, not just for a few months.

The Statistics Canada survey, which asked respondents if they ever seriously considered attempting suicide, began in 1998 and followed up with youth every two years until 2007.

Those with the highest risk were 12- and 13-year-olds; kids 14- to 15 years old were three times more likely to consider suicide, and 16- to 17-year-olds were twice as likely, compared with those not exposed.

“That’s pretty severe,” said Colman, whose research also shows by 17 years old, nearly 25 per cent of respondents to the survey had a schoolmate die by suicide.

Dale Johnston, manager of support services with the Toronto District School Board, said the Toronto school board responds with a “crisis team” when a suicide occurs.

Social workers are available for at least three months — the time it usually takes for “equilibrium” to return — to help any students in need, he said.

“We don’t buy into any prescribed approach,” said Johnston, noting any student, a friend of the deceased’s or not, can seek help to discuss the event, or anything on their mind.

The crisis team also takes names and contact info of troubled students to stay in touch after the three-month mark, Johnston added.

“It’s a whole school approach,” said Johnston. “We believe every school is a community.”

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