Exposure to suicidal behavior may be associated with increased risk of suicide, suicide attempt, and suicidal ideation and is a significant public health problem. However, evidence to date has not reliably distinguished between exposure to suicide versus suicide attempt, nor whether the risk differs across suicide-related outcomes, which have markedly different public health implications. Our aim therefore was to quantitatively assess the independent risk associated with exposure to suicide and suicide attempt on suicide, suicide attempt, and suicidal ideation outcomes and to identify moderators of this risk using multilevel meta-analysis.
Methods and findings
We systematically searched MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO, CINAHL, ASSIA, Sociological Abstracts, IBSS, and Social Services Abstracts from inception to 19 November 2019. Eligible studies included comparative data on prior exposure to suicide, suicide attempt, or suicidal behavior (composite measure—suicide or suicide attempt) and the outcomes of suicide, suicide attempt, and suicidal ideation in relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Dichotomous events or odds ratios (ORs) of suicide, suicide attempt, and suicidal ideation were analyzed using multilevel meta-analyses to accommodate the non-independence of effect sizes. We assessed study quality using the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute quality assessment tool for observational studies. Thirty-four independent studies that presented 71 effect sizes (exposure to suicide: k = 42, from 22 independent studies; exposure to suicide attempt: k = 19, from 13 independent studies; exposure to suicidal behavior (composite): k = 10, from 5 independent studies) encompassing 13,923,029 individuals were eligible. Exposure to suicide was associated with increased odds of suicide (11 studies, N = 13,464,582; OR = 3.23, 95% CI = 2.32 to 4.51, P < 0.001) and suicide attempt (10 studies, N = 121,836; OR = 2.91, 95% CI = 2.01 to 4.23, P < 0.001). However, no evidence of an association was observed for suicidal ideation outcomes (2 studies, N = 43,354; OR = 1.85, 95% CI = 0.97 to 3.51, P = 0.06). Exposure to suicide attempt was associated with increased odds of suicide attempt (10 studies, N = 341,793; OR = 3.53, 95% CI = 2.63 to 4.73, P < 0.001), but not suicide death (3 studies, N = 723; OR = 1.64, 95% CI = 0.90 to 2.98, P = 0.11). By contrast, exposure to suicidal behavior (composite) was associated with increased odds of suicide (4 studies, N = 1,479; OR = 3.83, 95% CI = 2.38 to 6.17, P < 0.001) but not suicide attempt (1 study, N = 666; OR = 1.10, 95% CI = 0.69 to 1.76, P = 0.90), a finding that was inconsistent with the separate analyses of exposure to suicide and suicide attempt. Key limitations of this study include fair study quality and the possibility of unmeasured confounders influencing the findings. The review has been prospectively registered with PROSPERO (CRD42018104629).
The findings of this systematic review and meta-analysis indicate that prior exposure to suicide and prior exposure to suicide attempt in the general population are associated with increased odds of subsequent suicidal behavior, but these exposures do not incur uniform risk across the full range of suicide-related outcomes. Therefore, future studies should refrain from combining these exposures into single composite measures of exposure to suicidal behavior. Finally, future studies should consider designing interventions that target suicide-related outcomes in those exposed to suicide and that include efforts to mitigate the adverse effects of exposure to suicide attempt on subsequent suicide attempt outcomes.