What is Suicide Contagion?

These are things not taught in school or via awareness campaigns. It is one of those things that people can take a lot of value from, if spoken about in the right way. When delivering suicide intervention training we often have to spend quite a bit of time here because it’s a concept so important but spoken about so little.

The US Department of Health and Human Services describes contagion as the exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior that can lead to another suicide. But I think that’s a bit vague and hard for people to really get a grip on, especially if they’re not working or studying in the area of suicide.

To put this concept into context, it might be easier to tell the story of The Werther Effect. In 1774 an author called Goethe published a novel entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the novel, a graphic scene depicts the main character’s death by suicide. Following its release, there was a reported increase in suicides among young men (main character was a young man) in Germany. Reports also noted that the suicides were often almost identical to that of young Werther in Goethe’s novel.

When someone dies by suicide, you might have noticed that the media have very strict reporting guidelines on what they can share and what they should not. This is done to limit the potential for suicide contagion or The Werther Effect. In Ireland, our media aren’t always great at this. Reporting on suicide responsibly doesn’t sell as many papers or get the most clicks, this is why it is so important that we call out this behavior when we see it. If you’re interested you can read more about those guidelines here.

Some professionals and researchers (myself included) believe that guidelines should extend beyond the media and should be upheld by every member of the public, especially those of us on social media.

This is the part of our Suicide Response course where we go through things we should never do following a suicide. On hearing that someone has passed away, we should never share information on where, how or speculate on the reasons why. Suicide is multilayered and is very rarely (if ever) due to one reason. Speculating on the reasons for someone’s suicide can paint suicide as a “problem solving strategy” which is something we never want to do. As humans we tend to want simple answers to difficult questions, but oversimplifying an issue as complicated as suicide can have devastating effects.

Another huge thing to avoid is sharing information on how a person died or the suicide method used. This type of information can be really, really distressing for people to hear. Highlighting or discussing methods can also be really dangerous for other people experiencing suicidal distress. Research shows that suicidal thoughts are fleeting, meaning that someone may feel suicidal in the morning, and those suicidal thoughts may have passed again by the afternoon. What’s really important in those moments of distress, is that access to suicide methods are limited. This is one of the many reasons we do not want to talk about or share suicide methods online or anywhere else.

Contagion can also occur where family or friends or people in a network are exposed to a suicide or suicidal behavior. In the past, research has shown that for every suicide, 6 people are affected. However, more recent research puts that number at 135. That is to say that for every person who dies by suicide, 135 people are affected or have been exposed to suicide.

This is why researchers and professionals stress the importance of suicide bereavement supports. Supports should be put in place immediately in the aftermath of a suicide. Open, responsible and supportive conversation with friends and family who have lost a loved on to suicide is a vital part of breaking the contagion chain.

Much like suicide, contagion is complicated with many layers, but for now highlighting what suicide contagion is as well as sharing some of the “do’s and don’t’s” may be enough.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. If you think this post might be meaningful, valuable or interesting others, please share it!

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