Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Suicide Contagion

According to the internet, Robin Williams killed himself. It would be better to say his death was an apparent suicide, since figuring these things out takes time, but the suicide narrative has already taken off and if some paramedics had a gut reaction it was suicide there's a very good chance it was. With a high profile suicide, the fear of suicide contagion is raised.

Suicide contagion is real - when people are exposed to suicide they are more likely to kill themselves. Today I saw a paper by the CDC on some of the known factors that affect suicide contagion and how it can be minimized.

In summary:
  • Don't provide simple explanations - don't suggest there was one event that led to the suicide
  • Don't report on the suicide repetitively over long periods of time
  • Don't sensationalize the story or glorify the people involved
  • Don't report detailed a "how-to" or detailed steps
  • Don't suggest that suicide accomplished a certain end for that person
  • Don't focus entirely on the suicide completer's positive characteristics
The paper is hopeful, suggesting that media will do its best to minimize suicide contagion if the media is educated. Basically, reporters don't actually want other people to kill themselves. Though it would shock me if there wasn't someone out there thinking about how they can get even more legs out of the story by covering copy-cat suicides, I'm sure the majority of people aren't psychopaths so the CDC is probably right.

I think that last point is really difficult for people. In English culture we don't speak ill of the dead. When someone dies we are supposed to say how bright they were, how funny they were, how everyone loved them. Once or twice I've seen someone quoted as saying, about a victim of violent crime, "he had his problems but he didn't deserve to die like that," but those are extremely rare. Mostly those who have died were apparently the happiest, friendliest, most helpful people anyone knew.

But is recognizing that someone was terribly unhappy over most of their lives speaking ill of them? I feel like one of the greatest contributors to suicide contagion is the stigma of mental illness. There are too many people walking around who would be killing themselves if they could only penetrate the taboo of doing so. A high profile story of a suicide, repeated over and over, helps them to do that. Sympathizing with a person who killed themselves and thinking, "Their problems are like mine," helps them do that. Seeing that people look back on a suicide completer with love and admiration rather than with anger and frustration helps them do that.

If we need to tell ourselves lies about people who have killed themselves and make them look happier than they were, then we are telling people who are thinking of killing themselves to keep up their lies as well. I hope that coverage of Robin Williams' death is full of reminders that he spent his whole career abusing drugs and going through depressive episodes. If it helps with suicide contagion in the short run, that's a good thing. I hope in the long run we can more widely live with the knowledge that people around us are often in pain. Maybe we can be a bit nicer to one another.

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