Did you know that when a celebrity commits suicide, there is a dramatic increase in suicides nationally? Over the last few days, I have heard from an increased number of folks who lost someone to suicide, or are thinking about committing suicide themselves. Suicide contagion is a process in which the suicide of one person or multiple people can contribute to a rise in suicidal behaviors among others, especially those who already have suicidal thoughts or a known risk factor for suicide. Due to our ever-present media exposure, celebrity suicides can lead to more deaths. The World Health Organization has even created a "best practices" manual on publishing news stories about suicide, to mitigate the suicide contagion effect.
Over 50 investigations into imitative suicides have been conducted. Systematic reviews of these studies have consistently drawn the same conclusion: media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours. These reviews have also observed that imitation is more evident under some circumstances than others. It varies as a function of time, peaking within the first three days and levelling off by about two weeks, but sometimes lasting longer. It is related to the amount and prominence of coverage, with repeated coverage and ‘high impact’ stories being most strongly associated with imitative behaviours. It is accentuated when the person described in the story and the reader or viewer are similar in some way, or when the person described in the story is a celebrity and is held in high regard by the reader or viewer. Particular subgroups in the population (e.g., young people, people suffering from depression) may be especially vulnerable to engaging in imitative suicidal behaviours. Finally, and probably most importantly, overt description of suicide by a particular method may lead to increases in suicidal behaviour employing that method.
Suicide rarely occurs out of the blue. There are risk factors, such as family history of suicide, family history of child maltreatment, previous suicide attempts, history of mental disorders, history of alcohol or substance abuse, feelings of hopelessness, among others that can lead to an attempt. Many times the individual doesn't share their anguish or struggles, but it’s helpful to know what to look for - and listen. Don't be afraid to ask the question, "Are you planning on harming yourself?" If you are having thoughts of suicide, this app might be supportive to you. Consider creating a safety plan - reach out to those you trust.
We all die, but the suddenness of a life lost to suicide can be much harder to deal with than a “natural” death. If you have experienced a recent loss, this site might help you navigate the event.
A few of my clients have asked for guidance in supporting a friend after someone they knew committed suicide. The one thing I stress is to actively listen, and to avoid trying to fix it. No matter how much we care about someone, we can’t fix their grief - but we can be there with them, as a witness.