What is Suicide Contagion?
In early June 2018, fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain committed suicide within days of one another. In a sixth-month period between summer 2018 and January 2018, six teens and young adults in a small Ohio town died by suicide. Three of those deaths happened within 11 days of one another.
The media have used the terms “suicide clusters”, “suicide contagion”, and “copycat suicides” in their headlines. Unfortunately, those phrases are becoming all too familiar.
What’s happening? Why do suicides occur in such close succession?
What is Suicidal Ideation?
Any person who fights an ongoing battle with severe depression or any teen who is undergoing intense stress coupled with hormonal changes might experience what’s called “suicidal ideation.”
Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Ph.D. wrote an article on suicidal ideation for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in which she says, “People who have made suicide attempts think differently when in a suicidal state. Their pain and desperation affect their ability to make decisions. Their brain isn’t working flexibly, and they can’t generate alternate solutions. They are hurting—they truly believe they are a burden and their pain will never end.”
People in emotional distress have a difficult time separating thoughts from feelings. And, according to Dr. Harkavy-Friedman, opportunity and impulse factor into the reason why suicidal ideation becomes suicide completion.
People fortunate enough to access medical treatment from a psychologist, or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) from a licensed therapist, can obtain medication and coping skills to manage suicidal thoughts and gain a healthy perspective on their internal and external stressors. However, certain triggers can create an overwhelming psychological response that pushes a person across the line. One of those triggers might be the suicide of a peer or a public figure.
How Media and Community Reaction Impacts Suicide Ideation
While there should be no shame associated with a person’s suicide—directed at neither the deceased nor their loved ones—a suicide death shouldn’t be sensationalized by the media, by academic staff and administrators, or by community leaders. Even those who earnestly wish to provide helpful exposure to suicide prevention may be doing more harm than good.
Media’s misguided handling of suicide incidents prompted the foundation of Reporting on Suicide, a collaborative organization of suicide prevention experts, journalism professionals, academic institutions, and philanthropic organizations that conduct studies on media coverage of suicides.
“More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage.” — ReportingOnSuicide.org
After Spade and Bourdain died by suicide, news outlets churned out content for weeks relating to their deaths and how they affected their family members, fans, and colleagues. Then the media sensationalized the methods by which each completed their suicide. When family members and other celebrities publicized their own thoughts on the deaths, new rounds of headlines appeared.
Many news outlets showed restraint, but enough behaved in a manner that compounds triggers experienced media consumers, especially those predisposed to suicidal thoughts.
Reporting On Suicide’s media guidelines help media decision-makers appropriately release news about notable suicide deaths without portraying them in ways that contribute to suicidal ideation or false perceptions about mental illnesses.
Many of their recommendations for suicide coverage in the media can also apply to how communities and schools address the deaths of students and peers.
Healing Without Harm: Community Response to Suicides
Suicide used to be taboo. At least, more so than it is today. Not too long ago, it was common for families to explain a death by suicide as an accident. While suicide is still stigmatized in Western culture, education and awareness have made it easier for communities to address loss in a healthy fashion.
However, some efforts miss their mark.
- Awareness events that don’t focus on individual suicide deaths are helpful—publicized candlelight vigils for individuals are not.
- School assemblies addressing individual suicides focus too much on a single incident. Inviting students to visit school counselors and privately discuss their own challenges is more appropriate.
- Public “altars” with candles, messages, and stuffed animals make it difficult for at-risk persons to manage suicidal thoughts. Sentimental efforts channeled toward local suicide hotline volunteering, or fundraising for mental health services are more effective means of honoring those who have died.
How Families and Peers Can Make a Difference
When someone asks you, “How’re you doing?” you’ll probably say, “I’m fine. You?” After all, that’s the socially acceptable response…and when we ask a teen that question, we’re lucky to get more than “OK.”
If you suspect someone really isn’t okay, don’t let them off the hook so easily. When someone’s depressed or in crisis, they might desperately want to reach out, but they find it difficult to actually do so.
And you might worry about saying the wrong thing or being too intrusive.
The following articles contain helpful tips for effectively opening up lines of communication and for responding to statements in which loved ones indicate a desire to hurt themselves.
- “What to Say When Someone is Depressed” from VeryWellMind.com
- “Supporting Someone With Depression” from Kaiser Permanente
- “Know the Warning Signs” (of Mental Illness) from NAMI
- “Talking with Your Kids About Suicide” from Psychology Today
The Difference Between Trends and “Trendy”
Suicide clusters and serious attempts aren’t the result of attention-seeking, the desire to punish others, or for the purpose of posthumous glorification. In spite of the storyline in the controversial television show, 13 Reasons Why, most suicide attempts and completed suicides are spur-of-the-moment decisions made by people who are suffering from very real, very intense psychological pain. When another person’s suicide becomes an unavoidable topic, and someone in crisis is presented with the means and the opportunity, he or she is at a higher risk of acting upon their existing suicidal ideation.
We all want to empathize with the very real pain experienced by those who attempt or complete suicide, but context and the ability to step away and remain objective about human tragedy allow those of us who are truly struggling to overcome the inclination to self-harm.