Understanding and Preventing Suicide Clusters in Young People

New research funded by Australian Rotary Health (ARH) reveals that there may be a critical period of 90 days to prevent suicide clusters in young people, after someone they know has ended their life.

PhD Scholarship recipient Dr Nicole Hill was awarded funding by ARH in 2017-2020, to conduct a nationwide study of suicide risk factors and cluster prevention in Australian youth.

The project revealed several important findings about suicide clusters, including the discovery that young people who have been exposed to or have knowledge of a friend or relative’s suicide, are three times at risk of attempting suicide themselves.

Nicole describes a suicide cluster as involving two or more suicides that occur close together in time in a particular location or setting (e.g., a school), or involves social links between the deceased (e.g., as friends or peers).

However, despite suicide clusters being a significant concern among members of Australian communities, it has not been clear what causes suicide clusters and how best to identify and prevent them from occurring.

“This project sought to answer these questions by examining methods for identifying suicide clusters and the risk factors and mechanisms underlying them,” Nicole said.

The project examined 3,365 suicides in young people that occurred in Australia over a 10-year period (2006-2015), looking at risk factors such as history of mental-ill health, drug use, financial problems, abuse and neglect, self-harm or suicide attempt, and exposure to the suicide of a relative or friend.

Another important finding showed that exposure to violent methods of suicide increases the likelihood of imitative suicidal behaviours among peers and that the risk is greatest within the first 90 days of exposure.

“The first 90 days following a suicide presents a critical window of opportunity for preventing further suicides in young people. This new information is particularly important for settings such as schools where there has been a student suicide and can be used to help prevent vulnerable young people falling through the cracks,” Nicole said.

Interestingly, Nicole also found that young people who have been exposed to suicide and are later involved in a suicide cluster did not have pre-existing vulnerabilities such as depression.

“We need to understand the fine-grained details of suicide clusters, their risk-factors, and mechanisms, in order to prevent them,” she said.

“Suicide clusters are an immense tragedy, but they can be prevented. It starts with knowing how best to identify emerging clusters, and equipping communities with the tools and evidence-base to effectively respond to them.”

Nicole graduated with her PhD in September 2020 and has since published five peer-reviewed articles from her research:

  1. Association of suicidal behaviour with exposure to suicide and suicide attempt: A systematic review and multilevel meta-analysis
  2. Understanding the mechanisms and characteristics of suicide clusters in Australian Youth: a comparison of cluster detection methods
  3. Risk factors associated with suicide clusters in Australian Youth: Identifying who is at risk and the mechanisms associated with cluster membership
  4. Clustering of suicides in children and adolescents
  5. Suicide by young Australians, 2006-2015: a cross-sectional analysis of national coronial data

Nicole’s PhD scholarship was co-funded by the Rotary Club of Smithton and the University of Melbourne. She will be joining us on ‘The Research Behind Lift the Lid’ podcast soon to talk about these findings further – stay tuned.



Media contact: Jessica Cooper – jessica@arh.org.au or (02) 8837 1900.




Support Us