Sunday, May 4, 2014

Copycat Suicides

In yesterday’s post about preventing suicide I did not mention suicide clusters.  Jennifer Hecht and Emily Esfahani Smith offered some good comments on it. They suggested that those who are considering suicide should become aware of the fact that their action might well trigger similar actions in others.

When someone commits suicide the life he is taking is often not just his own.

This requires a qualification. Some people commit suicide because they want to provoke copycats. Witness Islamist terrorist suicide bombers.

As though on cue, The Daily Beast’s Brandy Zadrozny reported on a recent study of suicide clusters.

Dr. Madelyn Gould’s research suggests, at the least a strong correlation between suicide clusters and media coverage of suicide. Young people who are exposed to stories of suicide are more likely to choose to end their lives. It’s almost as though media coverage puts a weapon in their hands.

We have often been taught that behaviors express mental conflicts, or some such thing. In these cases people choose behaviors by examining how society reacts to those behaviors.

The concept seems to correlate with what is called symptom selection theory. As described by Ethan Watters in Crazy Like Us, people choose symptoms, almost at random, to attract the attention (and concern) of others. People select symptoms according to the way they want to be seen, not in order to express an inner mental conflict.

Zadrozny explains:

“It just seems so frightening, but a lot of behaviors are modeled,” says Dr. Madelyn Gould of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and lead author of the study.

Heightened newspaper coverage following a young adult’s suicide is significantly linked to subsequent self-inflicted deaths, according to Gould’s research. Her study finds that the more sensational the reporting, the more details provided, and the more prominent the story’s placement, the more likely it was that additional suicides would follow. What’s more, the study reinforces the opinion that irresponsible reporting on suicide overwhelmingly impacts the young. According to another study by the same author, the prevalence of copycat suicide is up to four times higher in young adults than any other age group.

Gould drew her conclusions by examining the way suicides were covered in the press:

Looking at 48 suicide clusters, Gould found that significantly more newspaper articles on the deaths were published following the initial cluster suicide (7.5 on average) than after non-clustered suicides in the control group (5.1).  And in 25 percent of the cases for the clustered suicides, at least one news story about the original victim had been published, compared with 14 percent for the control group.

It’s not just that the suicides in a cluster were written about more often—the type of coverage was significant. The first suicide in a cluster was more likely to be printed on the front page of a newspaper and more likely to include photos, while the headlines more often contained the word ‘suicide’. The coverage was also more likely to detail the specific suicide method, and was classified as “sensational” or tabloid-like. Suicide notes were also mentioned more frequently.

Sad to say, but media coverage offers disaffected young people something that feels better than their anomie. It offers fame and notoriety. For those whose suicides express egotism, the media offers a way to punish other people. In its search for a reason the media will often try to pin the blame on the friends, family and therapists of the victim... ruining their reputations.

Suicide clusters correlate with more media coverage, more sensational details and more prominent display of a story.

A young person who is depressed, who feel anonymous, who has no hope can read these stories and see himself becoming famous, becoming someone that everyone is talking about. Or else, he might find in suicide a way to hurt other people, to feel empowered and to exact revenge on those who have abused him.

It isn’t quite the same thing as being popular, but it will feel better than being ignored or abused.


Anonymous said...

"They suggested that those who are considering suicide should become aware of the fact that their action might well trigger similar actions in others."

I suggest some rappers commit suicide. Maybe it will catch on.

Anonymous said...

Suicides by young people are perhaps the most tragic, but actually the least frequenct:

Looks like the rates for 45-65 is the group that is rising in suicides, especially since 2005, so not directly related to economic downturn either.

Interestingly the rate for whites is MUCH higher than all minorities except Native American.

Maybe belonging to a minority group means you cling tighter to your community, and have deeper support?

I wonder if people who move a lot for career advancement are also more vulnerable?