Exposure to Suicide in the Community: Prevalence and Correlates in One U.S. State


OBJECTIVE: Suicide has been identified as a major public health issue. Exposure to suicide (i.e., knowing someone who died by suicide) is far more pervasive than previously considered and might be associated with significant adverse outcomes. As suicide becomes more commonly discussed in the public arena, a compelling need exists to determine who is exposed to suicide and how this exposure affects those left behind. This study estimated the proportion of the population exposed to suicide and delineated factors that predict significant psychiatric and psychosocial morbidity following that exposure.

METHODS: A dual-frame random-digit-dial survey was conducted on a sample of 1,736 U.S. adults in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Depression and anxiety were compared in suicide-exposed and suicide-unexposed individuals. Relationships were examined between psychiatric outcomes and perceptions of closeness to the decedent.

RESULTS: Forty-eight percent of weighted participants (n=816/1,687) reported lifetime exposure to suicide. Current depression and anxiety symptoms were higher in suicide-exposed than in suicide-unexposed individuals. Suicide-exposed individuals were twice as likely as suicide-unexposed individuals to have diagnosable depression and almost twice as likely to have diagnosable anxiety. Suicide-exposed individuals were more likely than suicide-unexposed individuals to report suicide ideation (9% vs. 5%). Closeness to the decedent increased the odds of depression and anxiety and almost quadrupled the odds of posttraumatic stress disorder.

CONCLUSION: Exposure to suicide is pervasive and occurs beyond family; as such, it is imperative to identify those with perceived closeness to the decedent. This hidden cohort of suicide-exposed people is at elevated risk for psychopathology and suicidal ideation.

Document Type


Publication Date


Notes/Citation Information

Published in Public Health Reports, v. 131, issue 1.

© 2016 Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)