Social Connectedness Can Increase Suicide Risk

Prevention strategies should take into consideration that social connectedness is not always a good thing.Prevention strategies should take into consideration that social connectedness is not always a good thing.

Community characteristics play an important role in perpetuating teen suicide clusters and thwarting prevention efforts, according to a new study by sociologists at the University of Chicago and University of Memphis.

The study, published in the American Sociological Review, illustrates how the homogeneous culture and high degree of social connectedness of a community can increase suicide risk. Such conditions contribute to clusters in which a series of suicides happen around the same time and in close proximity.

In the new study, Anna S. Mueller, an assistant professor in Comparative Human Development at UChicago, and Seth Abrutyn, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, examined a suburban, upper-middle-class community that had experienced at least four clusters over the last 15 years.

Researchers found intense pressure to succeed, coupled with narrowly defined ideals about what youths should be, namely academically and athletically exceptional. Fears of not living up to such ideals combined with the ease with which private information became public, due to social connectedness, left teens and their parents unwilling to seek help for mental health problems.

“This study helps explain why some schools with intense academic pressure have problems with suicide while others do not. It is the pressure combined with certain community factors that can make asking for help harder to do,” Mueller said, as reported by the online portal of the University of Chicago,

 Downside to Social Interaction

In the study, Mueller and Abrutyn focused on a single community, in which 19 students or recent graduates of the local high school had committed suicide between 2000 and 2015. Their field research included interviews and focus groups involving a total of 110 people.

The researchers demonstrate why prevention organizations should no longer view social connectedness exclusively as a positive force in measuring suicide risk.

“Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of this study is that it highlights the downside to social connectedness, something that is usually touted as a key tool for suicide prevention,” according to Mueller.

The authors caution that suicide prevention strategies should take into consideration that social connectedness is not always a good thing. The findings also provide new insight for suicide prevention, which has focused traditionally on the downsides of social isolation and the role of mental illness. Additionally, they recommend the creation of programming to help students navigate perceived failure and academic stresses.