When is Suicide Contagious or Is It?

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In light of the recent deaths by suicide of very public figures, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I thought it important to start a conversation. People are frightened. I've noticed some mothers I know, qualifying his death  in a way that makes sense, "for someone else" as if to suggest that it couldn't hit home. And I get that because it's frightening and the truth is, no one wants to deal with death, especially not this way. But I wanted to clear some things up because in my humble opinion, the media glorifies celebrity suicides whether intentionally or unintentionally. The coverage of Bourdain makes him seem like a super-hero, the lone ranger who strode in, made us all idolize him, and strode out on a white horse. Yes, he was iconic. And he was a hero to many, but he was also human. He was human, and he was hurting.

Additionally, the media throws around terms like "suicide contagion" without really discussing what that means or giving qualified professionals the opportunity to weigh in. It's a headline grabber that grabs you for all the wrong reasons. It plays on FEAR.

So let's have a REAL conversation.

When I heard about Bourdain, I immediately flashed back to an article I had read after Robin Williams' death in 2014. I remember being struck by the author's profound honesty. She talked about her patients expressing fear, like it was too close to home, like it could be contagious in a way. It caused them despair. Almost as if, there was a collective expression of, "Could that be me, next?". Published in Psychology Today and titled, "Is Suicide Contagious?" the author, Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW, answered this way:

My clients tell me that what worries them the most, when suicide splashes the headlines, is that it becomes a viable option. They feel as if they can no longer suppress it. It becomes a temptation they either hide from or flirt with, either way, it feels too present, too ominous, too accessible. It’s as if, someone else’s successful suicide robs them of their own capacity to control the urge. And that, indeed, is scary. We know that suicide is not contagious. It doesn’t work that way. It just feels that way. Sometimes. To some people.

So when the media throws around terms like "suicide contagion" I think it does nothing to open up the conversation and instead only leaves us immobilized in fear, whether for ourselves or for another. To be clear, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, there is a phenomenon known as suicide contagion, but to be clear, it doesn't spread like Mumps just because you talk about the subject.

Says the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services:

Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one's family, one's peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.

Note please: the "at risk" part of the aforementioned statement. 

So what does this all mean for us? It means simply that we are human - just that  simple. We are all on this journey called the human experience. And, as such we are all collectively responsible for one another. Some of us struggle. It doesn't make one better than the other. It doesn't mean mental illness can't be treated either.  The lesson is so simple it often evades us. As human beings, we need to look toward each other, not away, no matter how frightening it feels.

Friday night, I was struggling, like many of you, to understand why someone who seemed so fun and on top of it all, like Bourdain, could take his life. It occurred to me that the answer was the same for all of us,. Bourdain wasn't the lone ranger, some hero swashbuckling adventurer - although some of that description fits - that was simply the headline version, a media tag. In truth, he was only human, just like you, just like me, and endowed with all the limitations that that entails. He was fragile like all of us. But as I was struggling, I was struck by an exchange of hyperbole over texts with my friend. She was also struggling with the news and I decided we needed to talk about it, not turn away.

My friend's last text read,

He was clearly in love and planning on seeing his best friend the next morning so I don't get it.

 I responded,

Yeah I guess it just reminds us that the human condition is fragile  And we all have to be present and pay attention because the moments you get to have with someone are precious  I guess that is also what angers me  If he could be so "human" - this kind of super guy, how are we all still achieving such resilience? And does that mean, it's fleeting? You know it just makes you stop and take pause. Maybe that's the lesson. Maybe that's the only lesson.

If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of suicide or hopelessness, contact The Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1800-273-8255.