'Virtual communities could trigger youth suicide clusters'

US expert: Phenomenon in which people kill themselves following someone else's suicide could spread via Web sites such as Myspace.

HP laptop computer 224.8 (photo credit: Courtesy)
HP laptop computer 224.8
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A US expert in "suicide clusters" - in which victims, usually young people, imitate an initial case of suicide and kill themselves - said at a conference outside Jerusalem on Tuesday that the phenomenon could spread via Web sites such as Myspace, which create virtual communities. Prof. Madelyn Gould of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute was speaking at a three-day conference, Understanding Youth Suicide, attended by some 100 local and foreign psychiatrists, psychologists and other professionals at the Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha guest house. Gould told the audience that media reports usually accompany any rash of suicides occurring in the same geographical area within a few months. "A normal person will be sad if a friend killed himself, but he doesn't become suicidal unless he suffers from existing tension and vulnerabilities. Then it can become contagious," she said. While researchers like Gould have been collecting increasing data on such suicide clusters, they are in the dark about possible suicide "contagion" that could result from virtual communities on the Internet, which are becoming increasingly popular among young people. She suggested at the conference that research be done to understand how to prevent such clusters of suicides. Suicide clusters in a specific place and within a short time are still relatively rare, comprising only one to five percent of all suicides. However, there have been cases in which as many as 11 young people committed suicide in a chain reaction to an initial suicide. Gould studied 53 clusters in which 209 American youths died over about a decade. She and colleagues interviewed friends and relatives of the victims, as well as a control group of "healthy" youths who did not take their own lives. In a third of the cases, the suicide was carried out in front of other cases - such as at a party or a home - but in more than half of the cases, the victim killed himself (the vast majority were teenage boys) in a public area, such as a schoolyard. One of the people who addressed the conference was Eytan Goldberg, an Israeli whose 19-year-old son committed suicide in the army a decade ago. "It took me several years to forgive him for what he did to us, but it has taken longer for me to forgive myself for not noting the signs of his depression and crisis because he didn't fit in with his peers. I promised myself I would do all I could to prevent similar tragedies and to push the government to allocate money to fight suicide in Israel, where there is little awareness." Goldberg established a voluntary organization called Derech Hayim ("Path of Life") to educate the public about youth suicide. A full feature on the youth suicide conference will appear on the Health Page on Sunday, April 6.