When a friend of a friend becomes suicidal, at-risk teens are more likely to attempt suicide as well, new research suggests. But having a summer job may protect vulnerable teens from copycat suicidal thoughts, researchers found.

These observations stem from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which included information on friendship networks of 2,000 students at 15 junior and senior high schools.

"We found that suicidal tendencies diffuse across adolescent friendship networks," Dr. Robert Baller, associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences study co-author who was involved in the study, told Reuters Health.

"Specifically, when a friend of a friend attempts suicide, teens are more likely to seriously consider an attempt, but the effect only operates for teens experiencing various combinations of the following risk factors: physical fights, heavy alcohol consumption, same-sex attraction, obesity, and rape victimization," Baller emphasized.

Holding a summer job, Baller and co-investigator Kelly Richardson of the Iowa City VA Medical Center found, prevents diffusion of suicidal thoughts or actions to at-risk teens. "If older at-risk teens work for pay approximately 20 or more hours in a typical summer week, the diffusive effect is eliminated," Baller told Reuters Health.

"For younger at-risk teens, those under age 16, only 10 hours of paid employment in the summer are needed to produce the same benefit," he said.

Other factors such as church attendance, employment during the school year, participation in sports, and residing in a two-parent home are not as protective as a summer job, the researchers found.

"Summer employment," Baller noted in a university-issued statement, "is thought to be beneficial because it creates self-esteem while reducing isolation and substance abuse, and it does not conflict with school work in the way a job during the school year could."

"The findings pertaining to summer jobs," Baller told Reuters Health, "are important because they have practical implications for parents, namely, if your teen is having difficulties, a summer job may be a fine remedy. When troubled teens 'bring home a little bacon' they seem to enjoy more self esteem and less suicidality."

But a summer job may be hard to come by, given the current economic downturn. Possible solutions could include working for pay within the family or for a friend of the family, Baller and Richardson suggest.