Are Depression and Cluster Suicides Contagious?

Are Depression and Cluster Suicides Contagious?

Oftentimes, suicides will seem to happen in clusters, especially with celebrities. There are studies that show when suicides are broadcast in the media, the rate of suicides in the general population go up, briefly.

When suicides are no longer front-page news, everything goes back to normal. Likewise, when there is a suicide within a peer group, or neighborhood, the chance of secondary suicides also goes up for a time.

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We’ve seen the phenomenon with celebrities, and, more recently, survivors of shared trauma including mass shooting victims and combat veterans.

Does that mean suicide is something you catch, like a cold, by mere suggestion? Is it, as they say, “contagious"?

The Evidence for Contagion

The evidence that backs up the idea of “cluster suicides” (when people of a certain peer group or locality die of suicide within a short span of time) and “contagious suicide” (when a spike in the general suicide rate is seen after a local or reported suicide) is pretty extensive and solid.

The good news is, so is the evidence for prevention.

From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, many fictional accounts of suicide and suicide attempts have been blamed for encouraging copycat suicides.

One fictional book from 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, was so notorious, it got its own nickname for the copycat suicide phenomenon – the Werther Effect.

In this book, a young man named Werther kills himself with his friend’s pistol, when he can no longer bear the pain of his beloved choosing to be with his friend instead of him. A trend ensued of young men killing themselves in the same way, and in the same clothing, of the fictional character. Many were said to have a copy of the book nearby, like a calling card.

But, the evidence for suicides after fictional characters suicides is not as voluminous as the evidence for suicides after real people have taken their own lives.

According to studies performed by Madelyn S. Gould, Ph.D., M.P.H., along with a meta-analysis of the subject we can draw four conclusions: [1]

When the media reports suicide in an incessant or detailed way, general suicide rates go up for a few weeks.

When one person in a local area or within a peer group commits suicide, there is often a cluster effect.

When an adolescent commits suicide, it is not uncommon for others who were acquainted with him/her to follow suit.

Copycat, cluster, and contagious suicides are not committed by healthy, happy individuals. These events happen to others who are vulnerable, have attempted or planned suicide previously, or who are currently struggling with mental illness or serious life disruptions, themselves.

What Works to Stop the Spread?

The good news is there are things we can do to mitigate this problem.

In the 1980s, there was a large number of people committing suicide by stepping in front of subway trains. With each new case, the newspapers emblazoned the issue on the front page, until they made it a point to stop. Once they ceased sensationalizing the suicides, the suicide rate went down 75%.

There are new media guidelines being pushed, currently, that seems to work.

When a journalist or news outlet reports a suicide, they may unintentionally glamourize it by highlighting the method used or the details surrounding the case.

They may linger too long on the effects of the person’s death, the grieving family or fans. They may report on how the person did it, thereby giving the public a new idea, instead of a deterrent.

Instead, suicide reports should focus less on the method, the shock, and the sadness, and more on the topic at hand: how to prevent this from happening. When reports do not mention details and instead focus on warning signs, and calls to reach out if you are depressed, it is much more helpful.

Another evidence-based tactic is to focus on stories of hope. Too often, the news starts going down the rabbit hole of other related suicides, or insinuating the suicide rates are “skyrocketing” or at “crisis-levels.” They have nothing better to talk about that rehashing suicide itself. It’s lazy reporting, really.

Evidence has shown that when the media publishes or broadcasts stories of redemption and recovery, suicide rates go down. People reach out to crisis hotlines. When people who have battled mental illness and suicide come out the other end and say they are grateful, it gives other people permission and encouragement to come out of the darkness, themselves.

How the media presents a topic influences how the public views the topic. Imagine that.

Is “Contagious” an Appropriate Term?

Suicide is not contagious like the flu or a virus. If you were close to someone who has committed suicide, it doesn’t mean that you will begin to feel suicidal.

However, what happens is people who were already at risk are susceptible to the suggestion. It can bring their repressed suicidal thoughts back to life. It can re-ignite the thought of suicide as a viable option. In other words, it is a trigger for those who are struggling.

Since most of us have no control over how the media reports on suicide, it’s best to check in on the people who you feel might be vulnerable. This would include those who have previously attempted suicide, those who suddenly drop off the radar, start working unusual goodbyes into conversations, or who give away their prized or necessary possessions out of the blue.

You should also check on those who seem to have it all together, except they are juggling multiple high-stress tasks at once. Just a conversation, or a simple nudge can be life-altering. In many cases, a simple check-in can stop someone from going over the edge.

Influential is probably a better word than contagious, so be an influence of hope if you are healthy and reach out if you are unwell. Either way, you have the power to influence people to hang in there and keep living.

References

1) "THE CONTAGION OF SUICIDAL BEHAVIOR - Contagion of Violence - NCBI Bookshelf." National Center for Biotechnology Information, 6 Feb. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207262/.

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