Social ‘sameness’ can have a significant impact on suicide risk across American communities

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Relating to other people has many benefits that increase an individual’s overall well-being. According to researchers from University of Indiana, those social similarities — or “sameness” — can even profoundly impact a person’s risk of committing suicide.

Study authors examined marital status, birthplace, ethnicity, and employment of Americans in various communities. These traits make up a wide range of the social characteristics people share with their neighbors. Study authors collected data spanning from 2005 to 2011 from the National Violence Data Reporting System and the American Community Survey.

Results show that sharing these characteristics with others living nearby reduces suicide risk for those younger than 45 years-old, individuals not born in the United States, Blacks, Caucasians, those who are widowed or unemployed.

Social sameness can also have negative effects

Although finding common ground is good for some, study authors say feeling the same as everyone else can hurt other groups. Social sameness increased suicide risk for those born in the U.S., Native Alaskans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and singles.

“This study breaks a longstanding barrier to understanding the link between individual suicide risk and community-based risk,” says Bernice Pescosolido, co-author of the study said in a university release. “This offers new insights into how complex the relationship between suicide and cultural and social connections is. Science has been challenged to get beyond the split between looking at individuals and looking at communities in the U.S. Sameness allows us to think about the role of connectedness in new ways.”

Not everyone fits into the same picture of suicide risk

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says suicides across America appear to be in an upward trend. While previous studies have examined what affects suicide risk on an individual basis, the new findings suggest those factors will be different for everyone — depending on their geographic location.

“These findings challenge the idea of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to programs trying to reduce suicide — even for targeted groups like teens, where the increase has been great,” Pescosolido adds. “We need to consider where they are.”

The study also challenges the idea that the more similarities residents of a community have with each other, the less likely they are to have a high suicide rate. Take a community that is struggling economically during COVID-19. Researchers point to a higher probability of suicide among neighbors who are all in financial trouble.

“With the burdens that people are experiencing due to the pandemic, this study reinforces calls for fresh approaches to understanding suicide risk,” Pescosolido concludes. “Knowing how social context alters individual suicide risk provides a path toward personalized and tailored strategies for anti-suicide programs, policies, and treatment.”

This study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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