Time and again, there are media reports about a person dying by suicide and then another person somehow connected to that individual also dying by suicide. This phenomenon happens with such frequency at this juncture in time it has been given its own name: suicide contagion. Because suicide contagion is a recurring and relatively widespread problem, it is important for all of us to have at least a basic understanding of what is meant by suicide contagion.
Definition of Suicide Contagion
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established a definition of suicide contagion that is being widely used in the United States today:
Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.
Cohorts and Suicide Contagion
Suicide contagion has a tendency to extend across a particular cohort of individuals. This spread of suicide contagion can occur directly and indirectly.
The direct spread of suicide via suicide contagion can be seen in specific cohorts like:
- Schoolmates of an individual who died by suicide
- Friends of a person who died by suicide
- Family members of an individual who died by suicide
- Professional colleagues of an individual who died by suicide
The indirect spread of suicide via suicide contagion can be seen in situations that include:
- Individuals exposed to media reports of a suicide (which is discussed more fully in a moment)
- Friends of friends, friend of relatives, students at other schools who died by suicide
When it comes to indirect contagion, an individual who contemplates suicide knows of but lacks a direct connection to a person who had died by suicide.
Media and Suicide Contagion
Research into and examination of the suicide contagion phenomenon have led to the conclusion that the media can play a notable or even significant role in the “spread” of death by suicide. Media coverage of a person who died by suicide is a dicey proposition. A person contemplating suicide who watches this type of coverage might feel motivated to move forward and begin specific planning to take his or her life. Some mental health professionals have referenced some media coverage to have the effect of “glamorizing” death by suicide.
The Department of Health and Human Services has called for the media to rethink the way it covers deaths by suicide – including when the death involved a celebrity. The Department of Health and Human Services suggests that media outlets do the following:
- Minimize reports about people who have died by suicide, including limiting references to the cause of death and limiting the number of times a particular death is reported
- Make certain that media reports are factual and concise
- Avoid oversimplifying a death by suicide by trying to attach it to a recent life event of a person who has died in this manner (suicide typically being the result of a variety of often complicated factors)
- Reports should not divulge the method of death
- Reports should avoid any detailed descriptions of the death scene and related matters
- Person who died by suicide should not be glorified for his or her manner of death
- Suicide should not be explained as effective in achieving a personal goal
Warning Signs of Suicide Contagion and a Person at Risk
The Mayo Clinic has enumerated specific warning signs of the existence of possible suicide contagion and that a person may be at risk of dying by suicide. These warning signs and risk factors include:
- Talking about suicide — for example, making statements such as “I’m going to kill myself,” “I wish I were dead” or “I wish I hadn’t been born”
- Getting the means to take their own life, such as buying a gun or stockpiling pills
- Withdrawing from social contact and wanting to be left alone
- Having mood swings, such as being emotionally high one day and deeply discouraged the next
- Being preoccupied with death, dying or violence
- Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation
- Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
- Changing normal routines, including eating or sleeping patterns
- Doing risky or self-destructive things, such as using drugs or driving recklessly
- Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order when there is no other logical explanation for doing this
- Saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again
- Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated, particularly when experiencing some of the warning signs listed above
If a person exhibits these types of signals or signs, serious consideration needs to be given to engaging the support and assistance of a professional versed in the realm of suicide prevention.