Do We Need To Worry About Suicide Contagion?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Depression

Many people have issues talking about suicide. First, there is horrible social stigma associated with it: you “commit” suicide as if it were a crime. Family members left behind rarely clarify cause of death due to shame and the prevailing societal belief (or at least personal feeling) that they are somehow at fault. We see, “after a long battle with cancer,” but not, “after a long battle with depression,” in obituaries.  Because you can’t catch cancer from someone who died. 

So why do we think we’ll catch suicide? 

The portrayal of suicide “victims” by the media or in school settings may be one reason we see suicide contagion or “copycat” suicides, especially among adolescents or young adults. When we glorify suicide, make the suicidal into martyrs or heroes, or glamorize the action itself, we run the risk of contagion1. Detailed descriptions of the method used to bring about one’s death may also contribute to the likelihood that someone may try to copy those actions. Likewise, if we talk about suicide as the shocking or inevitable action of an otherwise “normal” or successful person, there is a higher chance that others with mental illnesses will identify with the person in question and follow suit. There was great concern following the death of Robin Williams because of the way the media idolized him, discussed their love for him, instead of being specific about the pain he caused through his death.

But those people who are vulnerable to suicide contagion are already considering it. This isn't like some happy-go-lucky softmore is suddenly going to want to die just because her favorite comic did. By avoiding discussions of suicide, we push it into a closet. We tell people thinking those thoughts, “We do not accept you, this isn’t normal, this isn’t okay,” instead of “We understand, let us help.” We force people to suffer alone, in silence, and are inexplicably shocked when someone ends their own life.  

Suicide isn't what kills people. It is the depression, the deep feelings of being misunderstood and helpless, the isolation that propels one down that path. Suicide is the end result, but not the ultimate cause of death. And by avoiding these discussions, we also ensure that the people who might have been able to help don't know what signs to look for in someone who is depressed or considering suicide.    

As a society, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, where the shame and judgment and fear that one death will trigger another sometimes outweighs the desire to clarify what occurred. We are left to repeat the cycle for eternity, sweeping suicide under the rug, never to discuss it again. 

But there is an out. Because all “telling” is not created equal.  

Most people who are depressed and suicidal do no want to hurt anyone else; they truly feel that their loved ones will be better off without them. By discussing the pain, by focusing on the upheaval a suicide causes a family, we have a greater than usual chance of dissuading those who are considering ending their lives. They may not think highly of themselves right at that moment, but they may care about those around them. In addition, if we preface discussions of suicide with information on mental illness, on warning signs, and educate on suicide prevention, we can actually reduce suicide rates, as occurred following the death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain2. The same studies that show contagion as a real and viable concern also show reductions in suicide rates when these criteria are met.  

Do we understand the pain of depression? Do we get why suicide might be merciful? Perhaps. But these statements need to be surrounded by other discussions, ones that emphasize how truly shitty it is to be left behind. Survivor's guilt can eat at someone forever (more here). We also need to talk about what the warning signs of suicide are, and what to do to get assistance (more here). We need to discuss mental illness and the horrifying thoughts that can accompany various conditions instead of pushing it all to the side and pretending it doesn’t fucking exist. Turning suicide into an illusive, mysterious fairy tale doesn’t help us combat it. Talk about it. Tell someone. For the shame and silence the suicidal feel do not disappear with their death; that shame and silence will only be passed on to their loved ones in the aftermath of suicide. And in that, there is no glory, no heroism, no solace, only the gut-wrenching regret of another life lost. 

If you need help now, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Help Me, I'm Sad: Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression
A deep but easily readable look into the world of childhood and adolescent depression.