Feds Offer New Program To Curb Suicide Clusters On College Campuses

By John Lavitt 12/16/15

SAMHSA has developed a program to help stop so-called copycat suicides.


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has designed a program for suicide cluster prevention on college campuses. Although not strictly proven by verifiable scientific data, there is enough evidence about the phenomenon to take preventative steps.

A suicide cluster happens when the suicide of one young person triggers other youth to attempt the same thing. Given the risk of the unexpectedly high number of suicides that can occur close together, particularly on college campuses, SAMHSA chose to develop such a program.

The genesis of the program is a webinar called “Responding to Suicide Clusters on College Campuses” that was cosponsored by SAMHSA and the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving emotional health among college and university students. The SAMHSA program is a direct response to recent suicide clusters at Tulane University and Appalachian State University. As a result of the clusters, both schools are recent recipients of SAMHSA’s Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Campus Suicide Prevention Grant.

With an estimated 1,500 deaths each year, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Since there is no reliable tracking system of college suicides in place, it is hard to know how often clusters occur. The anecdotal evidence, however, was enough to convince SAMHSA to take action.

A key mechanism behind suicide clusters is emotional suggestibility in the form of young people’s tendency to identify with others and mimic their behaviors. Away from their families for the first time, college students are especially vulnerable to suicide clusters. Dr. Madelyn S. Gould, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University, explains, “If someone in a peer group has attempted suicide or died by suicide, there’s a 3- to 11-fold increase in the odds that a friend will actually attempt suicide.”

Strategies recommended by SAMHSA to help campus administrators communicate the news of a suicide safely include a focus on the positive and the building of proactive relationships with media outlets. The “Online Postvention Manual” created by the SAMHSA-funded National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers additional tips.

“There’s a saying in the field: Postvention is prevention,” said Jennifer Cappella, M.P.A., a public health advisor in SAMHSA’s Suicide Prevention Branch. “If we can respond appropriately to these unfortunate situations, then we can, in theory, prevent other suicides in the future.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.