adolescents Gunn High Suicide Suicide clusters teenagers

Suicide is Contagious

A bright teenager attending a prestigious high school commits suicide. A number of the student’s classmates end their lives in the same way. Gunn High School, May, 2009? No! Plano, Texas, February, 1983. This began a twelve month period during which seven teenagers, from one of the best school districts in one of the most affluent cities in the country, ended their lives.  In New York’s Westchester and Putnam counties five boys died by their own hand in February 1984. In Omaha Nebraska at the beginning of 1986, three students from the same high school who vaguely knew one another ended their lives (Leo, Taylor, et. al, 1986). So the most recent deaths by four Gunn High School teens by willingly stepping in front of commuter trains are not at all bizarre but the most recent examples of the tragic but understood phenomena of cluster teen suicides (Fernandez & Samuels, 2009).
What makes teens so vulnerable? During puberty boys’ testosterone rises to almost twenty times its pre-puberty level and doubles in girls. The hypothalamus that monitors many bodily functions, including sex, becomes less sensitive to sex hormones and waits until those urges are very strong before it signals self control. The brain is beginning to become more efficient at fourteen by eliminating unused nerve pathways, but it takes about four years to complete the process. The pleasure centers develop more quickly than the impulse control system of the prefrontal cortex. Consequently early adolescents are more emotional than those older, young adults and extreme emotional states, both positive and negative, are more frequent. The body is rapidly changing with pressures for girls to be slimmer than is humanly possible but frequently represented by the media and emphasized by parents and peers. Puberty and life style also disrupt adolescent sleep cycles so that while teenagers need nine hours of sleep, they get seven hours or less. With sleep deprivation comes irritability and impaired decision making.

So what are the risk factors that when added to the dramatic biological and sociological influences of adolescence leads to an increased likelihood of suicide? According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), girls are twice as likely to seriously think about suicide with Hispanic females most often attempting suicide (CDC, 2007). However, boys are four times more likely to die from suicide as girls. Hispanic and white boys most often have a plan, and Hispanic boys most frequently require medical treatment after a suicide attempt. Suicide becomes a solution to problems connected to depression. A suicide plan is thought of as a solution to intolerable emotional pain. Family conflicts, economic stress, relocation, isolation from friends, a victim of bullying, gender identity confusion, history of a suicide attempt by a family member, friend or neighbor are all risk factors.When according to the CDC (2007) one in six high school students in the past twelve months think about suicide, and when 13% of those surveyed said they had a plan, and one in twelve students had attempted to kill themselves at least once, risk factors cannot be minimized or overlooked and action is required.  First, this information needs to be shared with high risk groups, like students who are members of a community in which a student suicided.  Students need to be told that depression is a mental illness that can be successfully treated with psychotherapy and/or antidepressants (use of anti-depressants needs to monitored carefully as this class of drugs may increase the risk of suicide among adolescents – c.f. Simon, 2006). Students should also be told that the way to get help is to talk to their doctors, parents, or teachers.

When made aware of friends who talk about being unhappy or alone, or who have sudden changes in behavior that may include either sleeping excessively or very little, eating very little or way too much, or have wide variations in mood and irritability, a professional consultation must be sought. Take all threats to hurt one self or others seriously and seek professional advice. Opportunities for students to talk in small groups and share concerns for classmates mitigate isolation and promotes accessing professional help. Professionals can offer consultation and advice when students gather to grieve the loss of a classmate.  Adults who are vigilant and supervise their children can prevent a tragedy such as when the mother of a Gunn teenager followed her son to the train tracks. The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-suicide (784-2433). In Santa Barbara call 211 or 1-800-400-1572. In Ventura County call 805-652-6727. Remember that most health insurance plans have some mental health benefits. Become knowledgeable, informed and act to prevent suicide.


Centers for Disease Control (2007). School health policies and programs study: Suicide prevention. Journal of School Health, 77(8).

Fernandez, L., & Samuels, D. (2009). A fourth Palo Alto high school student, 16, kills self on Caltrain tracks. San Jose Mercury News, Oct, 21.

Leo, J., Taylor, E., et. al. (1986). Behavior: Could suicide be contagious? Time Magazine. Feb., 24th.

Simon, G.E. (2006). The antidepressant quandary: Considering suicide risk when treating adolescent depression. The New England Journal of Medicine. 355(26), pp. 2722-2723.

By Bizarre Behavior & Culture Bound Syndromes

Dr. Kevin Volkan is a psychologist, writer, and educator with over twenty years of clinical, corporate, and academic experience. He is Professor of Psychology at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) and is on the graduate medical Faculty in the Community Memorial Health System. Dr. Volkan was one of the founding faculty at CSUCI which is the 23rd campus in California State University system where he teaches a course on atypical psychopathologies titled Bizarre Behaviors and Culture-Bound Syndromes. This course explores the outer range of extreme human behavior including paraphilias and was the inspiration for this blog. Consonant with his interest in deviant psychopathologies he also teaches clinical psychology and a course on the psychology of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Dr. Volkan has been a Silberman Seminar Fellow at The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 2010 and 2014. Before coming to CSUCI, Dr. Volkan was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School where he researched ways to measure medical student and physician performance, and the psychological origins of medical error. While at Harvard, Dr. Volkan also taught for the prestigious Harvard-Macy Institute, a joint program run by the Harvard Business, Education, and Medical schools. In this program he taught medical students and physicians from Harvard as well as from all over the world. Dr. Volkan’s background in psychology is varied and he maintains an active interest in several psychological approaches to understanding human nature – including socio-biological, psychoanalytic, psychometric, and cognitive-behavioral. He has had a long-standing interest in the psychology of compulsive drug use (which has similarities to the psychology of paraphilias), and has published a book on the subject. Dr. Volkan worked as a clinical psychologist for many years. This experience included serving as staff psychologist and Vice Chair of psychology at Agnews State Hospital in San Jose. During his tenure at Agnews, Dr. Volkan worked with patients who demonstrated many severe behavioral problems, including profoundly autistic, psychotic, self-injurious, and developmentally disabled individuals. Dr. Volkan was awarded the Sustained Superior Accomplishment Award from the State of California for his clinical work. In addition to his hospital work, Dr. Volkan also maintained a private practice in psychology in the San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a psychologist for the California Victim Witness program, seeing patients who were victims of crime and/or abuse. Dr. Volkan’s clients included a diverse population of people representing a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and psychological distress. Dr. Volkan received a BA in Biology from the University of California, an MA in Psychology from Sonoma State University, an EdD in Educational Psychology from Northern Illinois University, a PhD in Clinical Psychology from The Center for Psychological Studies, and a MPH in Public Health from Harvard University. In his spare time he practices martial arts and plays guitar in a rock band.

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