FIVE suicide clusters occurred across Ireland in less than two years, including a group of 17 young and adolescent men in one area who took their own lives within 18 months of each other.
The cluster of 17 -- thought to be among the largest recorded in this country to date -- is believed to have occurred in the Cork region between 2008 and 2010. Four of the young men who died in the cluster of 17 suicides knew each other. Others in the group knew each other indirectly.
The five clusters were identified by the National Suicide Research Foundation (NSRF), in what researchers said was a "significant trend".
The suicide research board has refused to divulge the locations to protect the privacy of the families involved but said the clusters occurred in both urban and rural areas.
The Cork area has one of the country's highest suicide rates. Munster's suicide rate in 2009 was the highest in Ireland at 15.7 per 100,000. Cork city had the highest suicide rate in the country in 2009, at 23.9 per 100,000 while Cork county's was 16.6 per 100,000.
However, several suspected clusters have been publicised in recent years, including a case of four schoolgirls in north Kildare and Meath who took their own lives within a year. Some of the girls attended the same schools and lived within a reasonably close geographical area. Earlier this year in Galway, Lisa Healy, 20, was buried two months after her boyfriend, Colin Roche, took his own life.
Dr Ella Arensman, director of research at the NSRF, said: "We are talking about a significant trend. We have indicators in recent years that more of these clusters are occurring."
She said a "striking" feature of the research was how young men were "overly connected" to their peers, rather than their parents or other authority figures.
"One person in a group who takes their own life can influence other people in that group who take their own life. It looks as it some of those groups are very reticent and dependent on each other," Dr Arensman said.
A suicide cluster is a chain of suicides by young people in a particular geographical area over a short space of time and experts fear they are becoming more common.
Dr Arensman said that identifying potential suicide clusters early could prevent future deaths, by providing early counselling and support to the peer group or community of a young person who dies by suicide.
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Dan Neville, a Fine Gael TD and president of the Irish Association of Suicidology said: "Many of these clusters are what we term copycat suicides. But not all of them are. The whole area of suicide contagion is recognised."
He said people who take their own lives as a result of the contagion factor don't necessarily know the people who are involved in other suicides in the area.
The NSRF uses a suicide support and information system to map suicide in Ireland, with the aim of improving support for the bereaved and identifying the causes and patterns of suicide.
The system is currently operating on a pilot basis in Cork, in collaboration with the region's coroners.
The system has studied 179 cases of suicide and deaths of open verdict. Dr Arensman's project needs €75,000 to continue its research work for another year and even more to roll it out on a national basis.