Suicide Is Contagious

“Suicide is an event of human nature, which, whatever may be said and done … in every epoch must be discussed anew,” said Goethe, as quoted in Alexandra Kimball’s thoughtful exploration of media coverage of suicide. She examines the idea that heightened coverage – including social media – correlates with increased suicide rates:

What gets lost in the discussion of suicide coverage is the logic behind contagion—why news of one suicide might cause a domino effect, especially in young people.

On a sunny day in May, I returned to Kids Help Phone to interview my old boss, Alisa Simon, VP of counselling services, and the new director of Program Development, Carolyn Mak. “Young people have specific vulnerabilities,” Simon tells me; contagion jibes with what we know about adolescent psychology and the way young people process stories. Young people tend to identify with prominent cultural narratives, to position themselves in the stories they hear most often. And “developmentally, [young people] don’t necessarily understand what the outcomes of their [actions] might be,” Mak explains. “Do kids understand the finality of death? Do they really get that?”

Think about it, Simon says: you’re young, “you’re struggling with significant challenges, and part of that is feeling like nobody cares, you’re not noticed. [Then], you see that another young person has taken an action that is getting them attention, and the attention you potentially want… Their picture is all over the place, there are thousands of people expressing grief and making admiring comments.” When enough stories about teen suffering end in suicide, she says, death begins to seem like a natural solution. “One of Rae’s pet peeves,” wrote Leah Parsons on a Facebook memorial page for her daughter, Rehtaeh, “was that when someone passed away, suddenly they were liked and people cared.” The risk is that readers will understand suicide as a type of redemption.

But there is another narrative to be told:

Suicide contagion is often called the “Werther effect,” after the rash of suicides that followed the publication of Goethe’s novel [The Sorrows of Young Werther], but there is another phenomenon named after Papageno, a character in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In the opera’s final act, Papageno is dissuaded from suicide by three spirits who invoke images of the future. Clinicians use the term “Papageno effect” to describe how stories about people who choose against suicide can actually reduce the suicide rate.

[Dr. Jitender] Sareen sends me links to a number of recent studies, the most interesting of which is a 2005 Austrian study that compared how different kinds of suicide narratives link up with suicidal behaviour. Repeated exposure to traditional kinds of media suicide coverage, including stories that focused on suicide epidemiology or expert opinions, were positively associated with suicide. But one type of suicide story was negatively associated with suicide, meaning people who consumed it were less likely to take their lives than people who heard nothing: the “mastery of crisis” narrative, which describes people who think about suicide but, like Papageno, decide against it. Understood thusly, the tendency of young people to identify with dominant narratives can be harnessed for good.

Recent Dish on suicide here and here.