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Teen suicide: Prevention is contagious, too.

Teen suicide in the US continues at high rates, but the stories of lives saved often don't make headlines – and prevention experts are encouraged about progress in that direction.

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The new finding that students don't need to know someone personally to be at higher risk "is a bit counterintuitive," Professor Colman says. "It's quite natural for schools to focus on those who are closest to the student who has died, but schoolwide interventions might be [better]."

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Contagion can rise to the level of a "cluster," when a higher-than-usual number of suicides occur in a local community or are linked together some other way, such as through social media. Clusters are most common among those ages 15 to 24, and account for as much as 5 percent of youth suicides, says Ms. Gould, the Columbia University professor, who is studying 50 clusters of suicides that took place in the US between 1988 and 1996.

Since the first three related suicides in 2008, Schenke's tightknit New Jersey community has endured at least seven more suicides linked to the cluster. But many prevention efforts have taken root as well, and Schenke believes they are having a strong effect.

For both parents and kids, "it's definitely become less taboo here to go to a counselor," Schenke says. "We had a lot of deaths.... But it could have been a lot worse, because we really do know of a lot of teens and young adults that were helped."

Schenke has been open about her family's story – from writing a letter to the local newspaper editor shortly after Tim died to her recent book, "Without Tim: A Son's Fall to Suicide, A Mother's Rise from Grief." She reassures young people that they are valued, and encourages parents to keep trying when they worry their teen is slipping away.

In return, she's heard about lives restored to a healthy balance. "One mom shared with me that her daughter was in senior year with Tim and things were not good – she had severe depression and was possibly suicidal," Schenke says, but Tim supported and encouraged her. "After Tim died, seeing what happened with our family, [the girl] kind of got the strength from his death to say, 'I don't want that to happen.' "

Scott Fritz, cofounder of SPTS, lost his 15-year-old daughter to suicide 10 years ago. He has since devoted himself to educating teachers and parents. The main message that he and Underwood convey to parents: Talk to your kids about suicide. If they say they've thought about it, instead of recoiling in shock, say to them, "Tell me more." Some parents have told him that heeding this advice helped save their child's life.

Warning signs of suicide range from talk about feeling hopeless or feeling like a burden to extreme mood swings, rage, and a spike in anxiety. SPTS offers a free online video, "Not My Kid" (to view, go to, with tips about how to recognize and address warning signs.

Developing the power of peer influence

It's a Thursday morning in October, and nearly a dozen pairs of students are standing on the Chautauqua Lake Central School stage in an otherwise empty auditorium, twisting, bending, and giggling as they try to unlock the loops of yarn linking them together.

The Sources of Strength training includes games to help peer leaders connect, and then open up as the conversation turns to more serious matters.

In a circle of folding chairs, they talk about common causes of stress (breakups, applying for college, peer pressure, rough times at home) and the many ways they find to cope: hugs from a favorite teacher, friendships, playing sports or an instrument ("When I play my cello, nothing else matters," one girl says. "It makes me feel like I'm whole").

LoMurray, casual in his gray Sources of Strength sweat shirt, puts the kids at ease and tells them again and again how powerfully they can influence their peers.

Generally, fewer than a third of teens who are considering suicide will communicate that information to an adult, Professor Wyman says.

By comparison, four months after training, Sources of Strength peer leaders – about 10 percent of students in participating schools – were significantly more likely than a control group to expect help and to be willing to seek help from adults for suicidal students. Positive effects along these lines were found in the rest of the school as well. Peer leaders were more likely to reject codes of silence – telling an adult about a friend even if asked to keep it secret. And they were more likely to have increased the number of adults they trusted.


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