Suicide Contagion And The Parkland Tragedy
It’s just one month past the first anniversary of the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and we have all been saddened to hear that two students who survived the attack recently took their lives within days of each other. Also, the father of a child who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings died this week in an apparent suicide. Now experts are concerned that these deaths may be the result of suicide contagion.
What Is Suicide Contagion?
There is strong evidence to suggest that suicides can occur in groups. When the media reports that someone famous has died by suicide, it seems that other, similar deaths quickly follow. It is almost as if suicide somehow becomes “contagious.”
We saw this happen last summer when Anthony Bourdain took his own life within days of Kate Spade’s death. Now we have this most recent suicide cluster involving the Parkland students and the Sandy Hook father. Were they due to suicide contagion?
Suicide contagion is also known as the Werther Effect – a phrase coined in the 1970s by suicide researcher, David Phillips. The name refers to a character called Werther from a 1774 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the book, Werther takes his life when he learns that the woman he loves has married another man.
After its release, Goethe’s novel was blamed for numerous copycat suicides across Europe. In this early example of suicide contagion, many of the victims died in a similar manner to the way the Werther character killed himself in the book. Some people used the same type of gun and some dressed in the style of clothing that Werther wore. Some were even found with a copy of the novel on or near their bodies.
The News Media’s Connection To Suicide Contagion
Phillips’ research into suicide clusters led him to conclude that copycat suicides rise when there is excessive news coverage of the suicide of famous figures. In addition to Phillips’ investigations, several other studies have found that suicide rates go up after media coverage of a notable death. These rates also fall when the media coverage stops.
“The way suicide is reported is a significant factor in media-related suicide contagion, with more dramatic headlines and more prominently placed (i.e., front page) stories associated with greater increases in subsequent suicide rates,” says Dr. Madelyn Gould, a suicide researcher from Columbia University.
As with Goethe’s book, suicide clusters also occur when fictional characters die by their own hand. Dr. Gould has reported that, “Research into the impact of media stories about suicide has demonstrated an increase in suicide rates after both nonfictional and fictional stories about suicide.”
There is an ongoing debate among experts about why suicide contagion follows these reports. Is it that the news coverage itself causes someone else to take their own life or do they do it because they are already in a vulnerable state?
Regardless of the reason, media guidelines for reporting a death by suicide have been in place in many parts of the world since the end of the twentieth century. Both the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued policies for how news reports should cover notable and celebrity suicides.
Today, however, we have a new concern. In the twenty-first century, we rely less on standard media reporting and depend more on online sources to find out what is going on in the world. In particular, young people get their news from social media and the internet. These methods can spread a topic far more quickly than a news broadcast and – unfortunately – will do so with no filtering.
Suicide Risk Factors
In the case of the Parkland tragedy, we know that the first student to take her life was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She also suffered with survivor’s guilt, as do many of the teens who were at the school that day.
Suicide is already the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24 and this is without factoring in the trauma of a massacre like the one in Parkland. Clearly, we need to talk more openly with young people about suicide prevention.
We all can help avert this type of suicide by watching for youth suicide signs and risk factors and by asking direct questions.
A risk factor can’t predict if someone will take their own life, but having one or more of them makes it more likely the person will either consider or attempt suicide. These risk factors are:
- Talking a lot about the suicide of someone important (or having recently lost someone close to them)
- Making jokes about dying or about suicide
- Losing interest in activities or relationships they used to enjoy
- Sharing feelings of self-contempt or worthlessness, or talking about feeling hopeless and unsure if they will ever being happy again
- Giving away possessions they used to care a lot about, such as favorite clothes or mementos
- Isolating themselves
- May exhibit extreme mood swings or have violent outbursts of grief or anger
- Might have insomnia or may over-sleep or be lethargic
- Indulging in risky behavior, especially if this is not characteristic of the person
Asking Questions That Can Help
The first step in preventing a suicide is the awareness that someone is considering ending their life. The next step is determining whether immediate intervention is needed.
If you think someone you know may be at risk, you can help them by using the Columbia Protocol suicide risk assessment. The Columbia Protocol was developed jointly by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Pittsburgh, along with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). It was adopted by the CDC in 2011 and today it is used worldwide to assess at-risk individuals.
The Columbia Protocol is a series of three to six direct questions that you ask the person you are worried about. Their answers will provide enough information to know if they need help and if urgent action is necessary (click here to download the free Columbia Protocol toolkit now).
If your child or someone you know tells you they are considering suicide, don’t judge them. Instead, show empathy for their feelings and let them know you care about them. Next, get help from a mental health professional or a suicide crisis hotline. A crisis hotline is especially critical if the person is in immediate danger of attempting suicide.
Never leave someone alone if they are threatening suicide. If you believe they are in immediate danger, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) in the United States. The line is open 24/7.
Forum on Global Violence Prevention; Board on Global Health; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council. Contagion of Violence: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Feb 6. II.4, THE CONTAGION OF SUICIDAL BEHAVIOR.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207262/