Lethal Impulse

Dustin Foster started his suicide note like this: "Dustin killed himself. I bet you never saw that coming."

His mother, Diana, found the letter turned face down in Dustin's room in Papillion. She started reading the back of the page, so it didn't make sense. That's when she heard her husband's scream from the basement, and everything became clear.

The 17-year-old had forced open the gun cabinet and shot himself while his mom and stepdad were grocery shopping.

It was a tragic end. And a tragic beginning.

One year later, Justin Knight found his brother's shotgun and killed himself. He didn't know Dustin, but his mother worked closely with Dustin's mother.

One year after that, Matthew Hansen shot himself. Matthew and Justin were best friends, and lived in the same neighborhood in northwest Omaha.

It's called the contagion effect: the way one teen suicide can incite other suicides and nonfatal attempts.

Contagion struck the Omaha area in February 1986, when three Bryan High School students killed themselves in five days.

It swept through Harlan, Iowa, in spring and summer 2001, when two teens took their lives and about a dozen others tried.

It weighed on Millard Public Schools officials in 2003 as they dealt with the suicides of three Millard students -- one from each high school -- and two other teens in the area.

It was a fear in Lincoln in October 2004, when rumors of a suicide pact followed the death of a 13-year-old boy.

Now, contagion is a worry for Omaha's Westside Community Schools, which lost two students this school year and one the previous school year.

Researchers estimate that 1 percent to 5 percent of teen suicides are influenced by the deaths of other teens or by publicity after suicides. But the problem isn't always so explicit. Sometimes the knowledge that someone actually completed a suicide may be enough to incite a mere acquaintance.

The apparent suicide of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain prompted fears that despondent fans would kill themselves. And that has happened since Cobain's 1994 death in Washington state. But that isn't the type of contagion that is most concerning to Sue Eastgard, a suicide prevention coordinator in that state.

"We actually worry about clusters or contagion at a much smaller level, " she said.

Death certificate data show other clusters of teen suicides in Nebraska, including four in the Fremont area in 11 months of 2000 and 2001.

Dustin Foster had been depressed, though he had only recently confided that to his parents when they discovered he had been smoking marijuana.

His problems had nothing to do, really, with Justin Knight, whose mother had long worried that he was at risk for suicide. Justin was often delusional and heard voices telling him to kill himself, said Darcy Knight.

She nonetheless believes that the idea of suicide became more real to him after she went to Dustin's funeral and talked with Justin afterward. She had wanted to make sure he wasn't upset by the news.

In his note, Justin told his mother to give his stuff to a friend. He signed "Love 4 ever. Peewee, " his nickname. Then he wrote "Sorry Mom."

Darcy had tried hard to keep her son safe. At one point, she made him sell his gun because she worried it could be used for suicide. He ended up using another gun that had been mistakenly left in the house.

Justin did sell his gun, as his mother had asked -- to his best friend, Matthew. One year later, Matthew used that gun to kill himself.

"Justin was his best friend, " said Matthew's father, David Hansen. "He had no inkling or hint (of the suicide) and it just gutted him. "

Matthew's drug use became more frequent and harmful in the year after Justin's death. David Hansen kept the gun Matthew bought out of the house -- not fearing suicide, but that Matthew might use it against someone in a meth-induced rage. Matthew, after all, swore he would never kill himself after seeing what happened to his friend.

David later allowed the gun back into the house, because Matthew said it was the only possession he had that once belonged to Justin. He turned a corner in his life, too, when he completed drug rehabilitation. But then he lost a job. And a girlfriend.

"I can't take the pain anymore, " Matthew wrote. He shot himself outside a neighborhood church.


Discouraging copycats

Schools: Limit memorials of teens who killed themselves and remove reminders such as empty chairs or lockers.

Parents: Talk to your children when someone they know dies by suicide.

Teens: Listen for talk of self-harm among friends. Stay with a friend at risk, and suggest you go together to get help.