Suicide is a devastating killer, and can even be considered to have a contagious effect for those who are already experiencing difficulties with their mental health.
Suicide contagion is the phenomena whereby one suicide causes the rate of suicidal thoughts and behaviours to escalate. For example, the death of a relative, friend or even an unconnected person in the media could directly or indirectly lead to a person’s suicide.
Senior Lecturer of Psychotherapy and Counselling at Salford University Dr Mark Widdowston spoke with UNILAD about suicide contagion:
Suicide contagion is a well-documented phenomena whereby clusters of suicides seem to occur in geographical areas within a relatively short period of time.
There is no doubt that suicide contagion occurs, although it is a complex phenomena which is not currently fully understood, although several theories have been proposed to explain its existence.
losing someone we love, but suicide contagion is very real. Suicidal people already struggle with the fear that there's no way out of
— Michelle S. Reed (@mooochelle) July 22, 2017
Fans were let devastated after the suicide of comic actor Robin Williams back in 2014. And it now seems his death had a much more profound impact than originally thought.
A new study from Columbia University researchers suggests a ten per cent increase in suicides in the four months following Williams’ death. There was also a noted thirty per cent increase in the number of suicides by the same method Williams used.
Williams’ death was widely covered in the media, with some outlets providing graphic details. In one case, the suicide method was included in the headline. Another publication irresponsibly speculated his death was linked to depression.
According to this study:
Although we cannot determine with certainty that the excess suicides were attributable to news media reports on Williams’ death, Williams’ death might have provided the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the US population (e.g., middle-aged men in despair) to move from suicidal ideation to attempt.
There is never just one simple reason why a life ends this way. After all, we all have complicated problems we may not choose to share with others.
Those considering suicide are already at risk, and there will be various factors which contribute towards an individual’s death.
According to Dr Widdowston, there is no ‘easy explanation’ to the existence of suicide clusters, but there are certain people who are particularly vulnerable:
There is evidence to suggest that people who are particularly vulnerable, such as those who are having suicidal thoughts or feelings may be influenced to imitate suicides where there is detail about the nature, method and location of the suicide.
— Nice Borderline (@borderlineyes) July 20, 2017
And according to him, often those who die as a result of these suicide clusters are not known to each other:
[This] rules out explanations such as people within friendship groups forming ‘suicide pacts’ or somehow influencing each other to take their own lives.
Suicide contagion after famous or widely documented deaths has been a concern for centuries. Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which ends with the romantic protagonist dying from suicide, sparked an outbreak of suicides among young men.
In the month following Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in 1962, the U.S. suicide rate rose by 10 per cent, with Marilyn’s death having been subject to extensively detailed news coverage. Women in their 30s, as Marilyn had been, were most at risk.
suicide contagion is a very real thing, and media reporting plays a significant role in it. these stories are literally threatening lives. pic.twitter.com/lU56R2alEO
— Anna Codrea-Rado (@annacod) July 21, 2017
Most studies about suicide contagion predate social media, back when people connected very differently.
These studies suggest that on average six people are affected by a suicide, however in an era of vast social networks, this figure is pretty outdated.
In fact, a 2017 study showed that 1 in 20 people each year will know a person within their social network who has died by suicide. This number rises to 1 in 5 over a lifetime.
— National Council (@NationalCouncil) September 1, 2017
Although these numbers may sound intimidating, there are proactive steps we can take to help those who may be at risk.
According to Dr Widdowston, we need to overcome the fear of posing ‘difficult questions’ to a person we fear could be suicidal:
Any efforts to prevent suicides are inevitably going to reduce suicide contagion. One of the most important things we can all do is to look out for each other, and to be willing to ask difficult questions if we are concerned about someone else’s welfare.
A lot of people are frightened of asking someone they think might be suicidal if they are having thoughts of taking their own life as they are concerned about what to do, or that they might somehow ‘plant a seed’ in someone’s mind.
By instigating such a conversation, you can potentially help save a life. “Don’t be afraid, and ask the question as there is a lot of research which suggests that taking that step and asking that difficult question can save someone’s life”, Dr Widdowston explains. “If someone tells you they feel suicidal, it is really important that they get urgent medical attention.”
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In case you forgot to remind yourself, YOU MATTER.
The world loves you, so keep fighting.
— JBUD (@jbuuud) September 3, 2017
According to Dr Widdowston, we need to be more open to having conversations about mental health.
Acknowledging how a person may have had various issues leading up to their death can be important when encouraging people to recognise and seek advice for their own problems.
It is also essential we actively tackle any stigmatising behaviour we encounter towards those with mental health problems. Discriminatory language or ‘jokes’ in any capacity should not be tolerated.
Suicide is the leading cause of death full stop for 20 to 34 year olds. It needs the attention it deserves. Money, research, awareness.
— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) July 21, 2017
On a wider scale, news outlets must focus on raising awareness and tackling negative myths. Discussing suicide in the media opens up the potential to educate people on how to recognise the signs of a person being suicidal, although news outlets must be careful to tackle the issue in the right way.
Speaking with UNILAD, Rachel Mackenzie, Media & Celebrity Manager at Mind made the following statement:
We know that when simplistic or sensationalist language is used or methods of suicide are described when reporting on the sensitive issue of suicide, this can lead to copycat deaths.
Journalists must consider the potential emotional state of their readers when writing about incidents such as the death of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington.
There is a way to write about suicide responsibly – a way that prompts at-risk individuals to seek help.
september is suicide prevention month. pass it on. pic.twitter.com/DaRcOL9bNY
— ￼ (@posiviibes) September 2, 2017
After Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, experts feared a pandemic of copycat deaths. In reality, there was only one copycat death and there was even a suicide decline in Kurt’s home city of Seattle.
Researchers attribute this partly to responsible media reporting, where Kurt’s death was framed as a cautionary tale. A year prior to Kurt’s death, the medical community distributed media guidelines on how to cover suicide.
For the first time, suicide-prevention resources and help numbers appeared alongside articles, directing people to the appropriate help.
Dr Widdowston offers the following advice to those who have been suffering from suicidal thoughts:
If you are struggling yourself, speak to your friends, your GP and get yourself a counsellor or therapist.
Counselling and psychotherapy can be an effective ways of helping people deal with a range of mental health problems.
— Samaritans (@samaritans) September 7, 2017
If you’re ever feeling down, The CALMzone offers amazing support wherever you are in the country.
Their helpline and webchat services are open 5pm to midnight every day:
NATIONWIDE: 0800 58 58 58
LONDON: 0808 802 58
Alternatively, you can contact Samaritans on their free to call phone number – 116 123.
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.