How Social Meaning Constructs a Narrative of Adolescent Suicide Clusters

June 2, 2021
Megan Perram, PhD Candidate in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta

Congress 2021 blog edition 

Trigger warning: This blog post discusses suicide in youth. 

How do we create the social meanings surrounding youth and suicide? This is a question Seth Abrutyn, Associate Professor at The University of British Columbia, is seeking to explore. Abrutyn begins his talk by calling into question the current methodological and theoretical directions of his home discipline, sociology, in terms of studying modern suicide. Suicide, particularly in young people, has never been more salient in our discourse and critical consciousness. Young people are evidently suffering, and one of the phenomena coming out of this tragedy is suicide clusters. 

Abrutyn argues that the issue of suicide clusters, particularly in high schools, is escalating, however we know very little about how they function and proliferate. A lot of the mystery surrounding cluster formation is rooted in misconceptions about suicide itself. For example, Abrutyn explains that many people wrongfully believe suicide is “caused by mental illness rather than the sort of larger social context in which mental health emerges.” This includes the ways in which mental health is defined, treated and engaged with on a societal, interpersonal, and political level.  

To better lay the groundwork for an exploration of the social roots of suicide, Abrutyn details to the audience the intricacies of a massive study he conducted in an American community identified as a hot spot for suicide clusters. Abrutyn refers to this community as the pseudonym Poplar Grove. Poplar Grove is an affluent, highly educated, predominantly white community and also has an enduring adolescent suicide problem, centralized in a particular school the locals refer to as “Suicide High”. In a 10-year span, Poplar Grove had experienced over three suicide clusters involving mainly “popular”, high-achieving teenagers. Abrutyn spent two years interviewing community members and high school students about the issues their youth are facing and found compelling conclusions.  

One of the social factors Abrutyn found that had contributed to Poplar Grove’s issue with adolescent suicide was extreme social connectedness. Many community members expressed pride in how tight knit their community was. Teens spent the day at the community pool together and felt comfortable seeking solace in parents, even if it wasn’t their own. However, the flip side to the social connection was a lack of privacy. As Abrutyn notes: “you can imagine how much the lives of these youth are magnified and how much they're aware of how magnified their lives are.”  

The second point Abrutyn discussed was a narrow set of cultural ideas: “we're talking about the fact that there's sort of a homogeneous notion of what an ideal youth and an ideal family looks like in Poplar Grove.” Abrutyn explains that the community looks the same, has little differentiation of wealth status, and shares an intense expectation of success from its youth.  

Finally, the last social factor Abrutyn discusses is mental health stigma: “taking medication, going to a counselor or therapist, you know, needing special accommodations at school, all of those things violate the sort of intense narrow ideal of achievement.” For the Poplar Grove community, there was a desperate recognition of a problem and a desire to enact change, however, these social factors run deep.