Social Contagion and Non- Suicidal Self-Injury: Archives of Suicide Research,2013


Copycat suicide  ( Werther effect) is  a well known phenomenon. Exposure to suicide/attempts can increase suicide/ attempts in those exposed to that act particularly among those  who identify / share characteristics with the model .Social learning (imitation)  through identification with the observed model explains this process. Many studies support this notion.Assortative relating  ( people with similar vulnerabilities form peer groups ) is another explanation for copycat effects.

What about non suicidal self injury? do social contagion explain this?

Stephanie Jarvi, Benita Jackson, Lance Swenson, and Heather Crawford explore  whether  self injury increase by social contagion. Social contagion refers to the presence of  non suicidal self injury  (NSSI) in at least two people in the same group in a 24-hour time period  or statistically significant clusters of NSSI in the same group.

NSSI is common among adolescents.up to 20% of adolescent community samples and 40% of psychiatric population  report this. Depression, anxiety, emotional dysregulation, child hood trauma, posttraumatic stress, and substance use are associated with increased risk for NSSI. Adolescents are particularly susceptible to social contagion. Positive and negative social reinforcement are mechanisms playing in self injury. i.e.  self injury helps to avoid / escape an unpleasant  interpersonal demand ( negative reinforcement), or to gain attention or to control environment or increased peer affiliation (positive reinforcement).

Studies show that NSSI contagion  increase and decrease according to the presence/absence of NSSI ‘‘initiators’’ in an inpatient setting. Having a friend out side of the hospital setting who had engaged in NSSI in the past year is also observed as a key factor. Both socialization and selection effects were  observed. Contagion is reported in community samples as well.Internet may be involved in both initial exposure to NSSI and act as a vehicle for ongoing communication about NSSI among self-injurers.

The initial engagement in NSSI may be particularly influenced by social contagion factors.Maintenance of NSSI is most likely due to reinforcement contingencies that develop over time

It appears that for some individuals, exposure to NSSI through peers and or the media may contribute to onset and maintenance of the behaviour. In authors opinion, carefully constructed psycho educational programs, and skills groups have the potential to combat misrepresentation of NSSI as an effective coping strategy and there fore decrease social contagion of these behaviours.

Summary of the article:

The impact of social contagion on non-suicidal self-injury: a review of the literature.

Jarvi S, Jackson B, Swenson L, Crawford H. Arch Suicide Res. 2013 Jan;17(1):1-19.

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