Each year some 1,500 Swedes decide to end their lives. The reasons are often personal and can be numerous, such as mental or physical disease.
Previous research has shown that people’s choices are affected by their surroundings. Various types of behavior, feelings, and attitudes are spread in social networks. The researchers at Stockholm University and the University of Oxford have studied whether such a drastic step as taking your life can also be influenced by others. The study is based on comprehensive data on all individuals who lived and worked in Stockholm County during the 1990s.
”By tying together relatives and colleagues, we could see which individuals have someone in the family or in the workplace who committed suicide. Then we studied whether the suicides of others increase or decrease their risk of suicide when we have controlled for other known risk factors,” says Monika K. Nordvik, PhD, who during her doctoral studies in sociology at Stockholm University was one of the researchers who carried out the study.
The researchers discovered that the risk of suicide increased markedly both for women and men if someone in the family has taken their own life, which is confirmed by previous research. But the study also showed that men’s suicide risk increased if they have had one or more work mates who had killed themselves in the last year. On the basis of how many suicides, statistically speaking, can be ascribed to this phenomenon, it turns out that workplace exposure prompts more new suicides than that within the family.
”Since there are so many more individuals who experience a suicide in their workplace, the aggregate effect is greater than what can be ascribed to the family, even though a suicide in the family obviously has a greater impact on the suicide risk of the individual in question,” says Professor Peter Hedström at Oxford University.
All in all the study indicates that twice as many suicides among men can be ascribed to the “contagious effect” of the workplace than to that of the family.
Of course, such a study raises issues of research ethics and what information researchers can access about people.
“The data we work with is de-identified. This means we can’t see who it is or where he or she works, since all such information has been replaced with number codes,” says Monika K. Nordvik.
Peter Hedström, Ka-Yuet Liu, Monica K. Nordvik Interaction Domains and Suicide: A Population-based Panel Study of Suicides in Stockholm, 1991-1999 Social Forces – Volume 87, Number 2, December 2008, pp. 713-740.
The article is part of Monica K. Nordvik’s doctoral dissertation in sociology, Contagious Interactions – Essays on social and epidemiological networks.