We hear all too often of the suicide of a teenager or celebrity. Most people react with sadness and curiosity. Other people however react by attempting suicide themselves, often by the same method they have just heard about.

Unfortunately, clusters of suicides where several people copy one person, seem to be predominant in teenagers, with as many as 5% of all teenage suicides reflecting an imitation.

But why would anyone want to copy a suicide? First of all, suicides are often romanticised in the film media: An attractive young person under unbearable pressure commits suicide and becomes something of a martyr to friends and peers by getting even with the (adult) world for creating such a difficult situation. Also, media accounts often describe in detail the methods used in the suicide, thereby providing a guide to potential victims. Little is reported about the paralysis, brain damage, and other tragic consequences of the incomplete or failed suicide or about the fact that suicide is almost always associated with a severe psychological disorder. More important, even less is said about the futility of this method of solving problems.

To prevent these tragedies, parents and teenagers need to be educated on and aware of the inadvertent glorification of these suicides by the media.

A number of programs have also been implemented to reduce the rates of suicide. These include curriculum-based programs in which teams of professionals go into schools or other organisations to educate people about suicide and provide information on handling life stress.

Even more helpful are programs targeted to at-risk-individuals including adolescents in schools where a student has committed suicide. The South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group is one such organisation. The Support Group has visited numerous schools through out the Johannesburg area and their program “Suicide Shouldn’t be a Secret”, has been met with enthusiasm and success.

If someone close to you is talking about committing suicide or you are afraid that they may be considering it, it is important that you take that fear seriously and seek help immediately.

A mental health professional will check for possible humiliations and determine whether any of the factors are present that might indicate a high probability of suicide. For example, does the person who is thinking about suicide have a detailed plan, or just a vague fantasy? If a plan is discovered that includes a specific time, place, and method, the risk is obviously high. Does the detailed plan include putting all personal affairs in order, giving away possessions, and other final acts? If so the risk is higher still. What specific method is the person considering? Generally, the more lethal and violent the method (guns, hanging, poison, and so on), the greater the risk that it will be used. Does the person really understand what might actually happen? Finally, has the person taken precautions against being discovered? If so, the risk is extreme.