Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know needs help, call the national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.
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.
In 2018, after the deaths by suicide of American fashion designer Kate Spade and chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” mental health experts said the high-profile suicides could possibly cause an increased risk of suicide contagion. Everyone should be aware of the risk factors related to suicide, they said.
Asking for help
The suicide rate in the United States has seen sharp increases in recent years. Studies have shown that the risk of suicide declines sharply when people call the national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.
- There is also a crisis text line. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.
- The lines are staffed by a mix of paid professionals and unpaid volunteers trained in crisis and suicide intervention. The confidential environment, the 24-hour accessibility, a caller's ability to hang up at any time and the person-centered care have helped its success, advocates say.The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.
“If they’re already struggling with thoughts of depression or risk of suicide, they’re already trying to get information about how other people are experiencing it,” said John Ackerman, suicide prevention coordinator in the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
“Especially when you’ve got high-profile people who are successful and who the world views as having a lot going for them and they die by suicide, it can generate feelings of hopelessness.”
There was a 9.85% increase in suicides – an additional 1,841 deaths – recorded in the United States in the four months following comedian Robin Williams’ death by suicide in 2014, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE in February.
That study was based on monthly suicide data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dated from 1999 to 2015. The researchers then analyzed that data, taking a close look at suicide rates before and after his death.
“In the story with Robin Williams, you saw a 10% increase in deaths especially among middle-aged men using the method that was described,” said Ackerman, who was not involved in that previous study.
“So we get concerned with celebrity suicides because when there’s lots of attention and lots of specific reporting about it in a sensational way people may be more likely to identify with that person,” he said.
“Following exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family or peer group, suicide risk can be minimized by having family members, friends, peers, and colleagues of the victim evaluated by a mental health professional. Persons deemed at risk for suicide should then be referred for additional mental health services,” according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Risk factors for suicide
Globally, close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is about one person every 40 seconds, according to the World Health Organization. In 2015, more than 78% of those global suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries.
Nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide in 2016, according to that report. More than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition, and various circumstances contributed to suicides among those with and without known conditions.
“Even though we need to do a really good job of supporting people who are already at risk of mental health issues, it goes beyond that. We need to make sure we’re viewing this from a public health perspective and that we’re making it easier for people to get resources, that we are reducing factors that contribute to suicide,” Ackerman said.
Suicide rarely occurs “out of the blue,” and 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.
Moreover, suicide can be preventable – death should not be an acceptable outcome of depression, said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“When you have heart disease or when you have certain forms of cancer, there’s a profile or a calculator of risk factors that’s done. So with heart disease it’s obesity, smoking, exercise, cholesterol, family history, and age. Same thing for suicide,” Lieberman said.
“There’s four disorders that have greatest increased risks of suicide: bipolar, depression, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, and PTSD. Drug abuse or addiction is a potential complicating factor in all of them – and in all of these conditions, death by suicide should never be an outcome,” he said. “But when they don’t get treated, some small proportion of them have the potential to harm themselves or will end their lives by suicide.”