Recent suicide clusters like those in Palo Alto, CA, have increased concern about how communities can prevent these tragic events. A new study in the American Sociological Review reveals that the characteristics of communities themselves play an important role in perpetuating teen suicide clusters and thwarting suicide prevention efforts. Sociologists Anna Mueller and Seth Abrutyn conducted an in-depth case study of an affluent community they call “Poplar Grove” that has a serious adolescent suicide problem, including a history of suicide clusters. Using data from interviews and focus groups with youth, young adults, mental health workers, and parents, the study identified two ways in which aspects of the community that are often seen as desirable may also contribute to youth suicide. First, Poplar Grove is a highly socially-connected community, where everybody knows everybody. While respondents reported that at times the connectedness felt like a wonderful social safety net, they also worried, with good reason, about the spread of gossip and private information. Second, the community is home to a homogeneous set of cultural beliefs that emphasize academic excellence and perfectionism. Both parents and youth felt intense pressure to live up to these high expectations and in turn, feared the shame and stigma of failures becoming public knowledge. Perhaps most consequentially, the study found that these factors result in (1) parents and youth being less willing to get mental health help when problems arose and (2) youth feeling intense emotional pain related to real, perceived, and anticipated failures. This study has several implications for suicide prevention. First, addressing the social causes (e.g. academic pressure) of youth’s psychological pain is important. Second, though social connectedness is often seen as a way to prevent suicide, the potential downsides of connectedness should not be neglected when identifying prevention strategies.
“Adolescents under Pressure: A New Durkheimian Framework for Understanding Adolescent Suicide in a Cohesive Community.” American Sociological Review 81(5): 1-23.