Copycat Suicide: Teens Aren’t Doing it Because it’s Popular
This project is a requirement of the GOA Abnormal Psychology Course. Using the process of design thinking, a challenge in the world of mental health was identified, interviews and research were undertaken, and a solution prototype was developed. Below you will find information about the identified area of concern and my proposed solution. Please feel free to provide feedback on this prototype, using questions such as “How might we…”, “What if….?”, “I wonder….”, “I like…”, and “I wish.” Keep the comments positive, please. For more information on the process of Design Thinking, click here.
My Experience with Suicide Contagion
I remember walking into my dance studio, about 20 minutes early to ready for my weekly Sunday rehearsals. After about 15 minutes of preparing, a line of my teachers walked out of the main office. Some were tearful while others cried openly.They walked into studio B and all of the dancers joined around them to make a circle , our company director spoke first. “I got news last night and I am not going to try and drag this out so I will be direct, Toby’s mother called this morning to inform us that Toby passed away last night.” I felt the happiness flee the room as the gasps and cries filled it. I will never forget the overwhelming feeling after she told us. This past February, my friend Toby died by suicide.
The next few weeks were incredibly difficult, not only for me but for my dance community, my school and the Seattle area that knew of Toby. I wasn’t prepared for this loss, especially because I had never lost anyone before to suicide. I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming emptiness of my previous life that will forever be changed by his passing. A few days after I told my closest friends about what happened one of my friends, who didn’t know Toby well, told me about the effect a death so close to us had on her. While I cannot share the feelings she shared with me, my conversation with this person made me realize that suicide contagion is a very real thing and that myself, and my community need to prepare for these after effects, especially my teen peers.
Toby’s death is something that should not have happened and I wish it didn’t. The end to his life can potentially make a change in not only my Seattle community but the United States as well. His passing and my newfound awareness of the after effects on teens, showed me that the support of youth during the aftershocks of a death by suicide is crucial to preventing a potential suicide trend.
What is Suicide Contagion? The Basics:
Suicide Contagion is a concept that comes from and is recognized in “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (below), a book written in 1774 by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. In this book, a man named Werther commits suicide and his lover is stricken with grief, she decides to take her own life as well. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
The concept “The Werther Effect” or “copycat suicide” is still widely relevant to today’s day and age in the world of mental health. Suicide Contagion or Copycat suicide is a largely growing concern amongst teens, partially due to the fact that social media is so abundant in a teen’s life. A teen may be scrolling through their feed and see a post about someone halfway across the country who died by suicide. They run a risk of feeling triggered or an increase in their feelings of impulsivity and overwhelmingness, causing a suicidal thought or action that may not have happened without the knowledge of another person’s death. While a person close to the victim may be more likely to experience depression, suicidal thoughts and/or actions, others who may only hear of this, can be affected as well. Something important to understand is that the commonly used term, “copycat suicide” can be disheartening and invalidating to a person’s suicide. It is not a “trend” like something that is popular, rather a trend usually with people who had previous mental health issues who may be triggered by a previous and recent suicide.
I reached out to Dr. Julie Cerel, PhD in Psychology and President of the American Association of Suicidology, to ask her a few questions about the topic of Suicide Contagion. I am grateful to her for having the kindness to respond to my email and help me with my project.
“My work focused on Suicide Exposure. We know for every death by suicide, about 135 people are exposed” says Dr. Cerel in her emailed response to mine. The people who are affected tend to feel more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts or action, especially the parents and close friends of the teens. About 1.5% of the American population will be significantly impacted by a suicide (McIntosh, 2015).
The Media’s Impact:
In today’s youth, social media and internet usage is commonly essential to a teen’s social life and it is abnormal to not have at least internet access in the United States. “These phones and other mobile devices have become a primary driver of teen internet use: Fully 91% of teens go online from mobile devices at least occasionally. Among these “mobile teens,” 94% go online daily or more often. By comparison, teens who don’t access the internet via mobile devices ten, to go online less frequently. Some 68% go online at least daily” (Lenhart). With internet access being so accessible, teens are constantly exposed to new information that can be troubling and even triggering to some. 71% of teens have at least 2 different social media networks. (Pew Research Center) On the graph below roughly 75% of Instagram users are between the ages of 16-34.
This data shows the direct proportionality between the graph showing data of hospitalizations due to self-harm and suicide attempts and the age group (teens). Social media has an obvious effect on people, as data shows that the majority of people hospitalized in 2017 are also the majority on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. (Omnicore, Pew Research Center, SGC). Another form of the media that exposes teens to mental health-related problems is television. In 2016 “13 Reasons Why”, an original series on Netflix, resulted in controversial debates about the impact the show had on teens. In a Complex Magazine Interview, Dr. Cerel discusses reports of, “Google searches with phrases like “How to Commit suicide” and “How to kill yourself” increased by 26% and 19% only two weeks after the show’s release” (Dr. Cerel). Dr. Cerel also commented on a recent triggering post by rapper XXXTenacion. See Below:
“There’s lots of evidence, that irresponsible reporting, including in the entertainment industry, that is specific about method, and is someone that people look up to, increases the risk in people that are already vulnerable” (Dr. Cerel). Dr. Cerel and supporting data shows that celebrity deaths/suicides have a tremendous effect on teens.
One of the largest celebrity deaths that caused a skyrocketing 12 percent increase in suicides following was the death of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe, the glamorous blonde bombshell was the most coveted and famous woman at the time. With overwhelming amounts of media coverage, youth around the world watched her every move and idolized her as an icon. “The media portrayed Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in a way that was representative of Monroe’s entire life — glamorous, glorified and sensational. Her death made both national and international headlines…” (French).
”Teen-agers are highly imitative, influenced by fads and fashions in general…Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it” (New York Times). Teens who are affected by suicide contagion usually have an underlying experience with mental health struggles. Many feel invalidated or confused about their emotions. When they see someone as iconic and glamorous as someone like Monroe resort to suicide, they may think of suicide as glamorous or develop a false sense of romanticization of suicide as an option to end their pain. Phillips explained that having the media constantly pushing the intimate details of a death by suicide can expose the vulnerable teen to seeing the pathway to ending their life that was once hidden, is now right in front of them.
Other Celebrity suicides that shook the nation are for example, in 2014 when Robin Willian’s died by suicide. There was an increased rate of suicide by almost 10% in the US. (New York Times). Another famous death by suicide was Kurt Cobain who passed in 1994, which also caused a spike in suicide rates.
In the graph above in 1994 nationwide there was an increased from 1993 with 31,102 death by suicides to 1994 (the year Cobain died) at 31,142 to 1995 with another increase to 31,284 suicides (Suicidology). Even though the person affected may not know the celebrity personally. “… just finding out about a suicide (the method used or the circumstances) initiates copycat behavior in a vulnerable individual, because the individual was already feeling suicidal to begin with. Suddenly, the vulnerable individual is provided with a realistic suicide method and becomes convinced that he or she can follow through with the act. Repeated media coverage of the suicides of political/religious figures or celebrities may also initiate “copycat” suicides. Research suggests that youth are more likely to be influenced by media presentations of suicide and to die in cluster suicides (groups of suicides occurring in close proximity in terms of time and/or place) than other age groups” (Reiss and Dombeck). An important point to that the quote above addresses is that many “copycats” are not crazy, obsessed fans who need to be like their idol. While they may idolize the celebrity, the celebrity did not place a suicidal thought that wasn’t there before. With all of the media coverage including magazines, shows, and articles, intimate details of the celebrities suicide can give someone the knowledge of a way to end their life or validation that suicide could be an answer. Usually, the person affected by the celebrities death most likely have pre-existing mental health issues and this tragedy can open up the door for harmful thoughts that weren’t as relevant in their minds as before.
Suicide is an incredibly complicated matter with many layers of reasoning and justification of why people turn to suicide. Unfortunately, there is no one solution obvious because every person, every struggle, and every situation is different. One form of a solution may help one person but not everyone who needs it. Resorting to suicide means that an individual is in a deep amount of pain; their coping skills and emotions outweigh the want for the continuation of their own life. While “fixing” someone’s situation takes time and courageous work from the person as well as from professionals, there are things that you can do to make seeking help and support for a person who needs it, more possible. In today’s society suicide is a subject many don’t feel comfortable talking about therefore people who struggle with suicide become isolated and feel they are unable to get help until it’s too late.
The biggest step you can take to changing how society views and discusses suicide is starting the conversation. Before doing so, knowing some basic do’s and don’ts is crucial:
- Show Videos that teach, model and emphasize developmentally appropriate help-giving and help-seeking behaviors and that provide information on finding help. The focus should be on “HOW TO RESPOND” or “HOW TO GET HELP”. In-house resources and local crisis numbers should be highlighted along with instruction.
- Videos that emphasize prevention and teach students that suicide is preventable. We want to reinforce the idea that there are preventative actions students can take to help protect themselves and their friends.
- Videos in which the heroes, or main characters, are the helpers.
- Videos that highlight effective treatments for underlying mental health problems. We want students to know that effective treatments for illnesses like depression and addiction are available AND that getting treatment is an important way to prevent suicide.
- Videos that are short enough to allow time for discussion as part of the day’s lesson.
- Avoid videos that depict someone engaging in suicidal behavior or that describe methods of suicide. This can actually increase risk for suicidal behavior among vulnerable youth.
- Avoid videos that primarily depict previously depressed or suicidal youth describing their depression and/or suicidal behavior. This can inadvertently glorify or romanticize suicidal thinking and behavior.
- Avoid videos in which the primary focus is on someone who has died by suicide
- Avoid videos that present suicide/suicidal thinking as normal in teens or as a common reaction to stress. Most young people who experience stress do not consider suicide.
- Avoid showing videos on suicide prevention to large groups or assemblies of young people. This topic that is best addressed in small groups and with support staff on hand.
(South Gloucesterine Council)
Like the mental health advocate said in the video “It’s like pulling off a band-aid and when someone else does it, it opens up a pathway”. This means that if someone has an underlying thought or previous plans of suicide when someone else completes a suicide, an example or normalization is put into place in that person’s head. Talking about suicide in a way that is constructive, not romantic or an option is the best way to start the conversation.
If you are concerned about someone you know who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or future suicidal actions, ask them directly. Asking directly may be uncomfortable but it is better to be safe than sorry. Asking “Are you thinking about suicide” instead of “Are you going to do something to hurt yourself” or “Are you going to do something you’ll regret”. Asking indirectly, risks having the person not being truthful in their response and creates the idea that you’re uncomfortable with suicide which only adds to the shame in how they may be feeling. Be as direct as possible, say the word “suicide” to avoid any type of misinterpretation from either side of the conversation.
If the person tells you they are suicidal, realize that you are not a mental health professional and you can’t help them in the most effective way. Although, you can:
- Be empathetic– Say things like “I am sorry that you are in pain” or “you must be in a lot of emotional pain, how can I help you”. Do not say things that invalidate their feelings by trying to relate how you have felt to how they are feeling especially if you have not experienced suicidal thoughts or actions. You can assure them that how they feel is temporary but still very difficult and painful. Reassure them that there are so many resources to help them. Suicide is never the right option. Offer support and offer to direct them to a trusted adult.
- If they agree to go to a school counselor, a trusted teacher/adult or a parent, walk them to that adult. Rather than drop them off, inform the adult of your concerns about their verbal expression of suicidal thoughts. Do this because the person may get cold feet when talking to the adult and decide not to tell them about their suicidal thoughts.
- Someone may tell you not to tell anyone. Whether they are your best friend or someone you don’t know well, always tell someone. It may be hard to break someone’s trust especially if that person may be upset with you. During my forefront training, the educator told me “It is better to have a mad friend rather than a dead friend.”
- After taking them to the adult, you can offer support. Keeping confidentiality and remaining available to help them through what they need is crucial and shows them you care about them.
- Sometimes they may say no,but if you are still concerned, let an adult know.
WHAT’S NEXT? #COPYCATSUPPORT
As the mental health advocate from the last video says, talking about suicide is the best way to prevent it. My school, University Prep has a student led forefront team which is based of a suicide prevention organization designed to prevent suicide and saves lives of teens. As a part of the student educators on the Forefront team, we organize presentations and conversations about suicide prevention for the purpose of starting a conversation and de-stigmatizing mental health issues in the University Prep community.
A way that you can make a change in how suicide is talked about is to talk to your school board about incorporating Forefront training or another program for suicide education for your school. Forefront’s official website is linked below:
By adding this type of education to your school, you can help move towards informing youth and preparing your community for a possible loss by suicide. Since healthcare isn’t designed to support mental illness or suicide prevention, educating high school youth can change that by teaching the importance of preparation for this topic.
If you can’t do this, put posters with resources such as the suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or Teenlink: http://866teenlink.org
Making support accessible and easy can save a life and get someone the help they need. I believe if Toby thought that there were accessible ways to find support, he may have changed his mind about his decision to end his own life.Take the steps to making counseling and support more accessible than suicide. Take the steps of starting the conversation about mental illness and help people in Toby’s position find support and the help they need, to make the decision to continue their life.
“Children and young people’s mental health.” South Gloucesterine Council, edocs.southglos.gov.uk/jsna2017/pages/children-and-young-people/children-and-young-peoples-mental-health/. Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
Drapeau, C. W., & McIntosh, J. L. (for the American Association of Suicidology). (2017). U.S.A. suicide 2016: Official final data. Washington, DC: American Association of Suicidology, dated December 24, 2017, downloaded from http://www.suicidology.org.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, editor. “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, 22 Oct. 2013, www.britannica.com/topic/The-Sorrows-of-Young-Werther. Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
Lenhart, Amanda. “Teens, Social Media & Technology.” Pew Research Center, 9 Apr. 2015, www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/. Accessed 20 Apr. 2018.
Omnicore. www.omnicoreagency.com/instagram-statistics/. Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
Reiss, Natalie Staats, and Mark Dombeck. “Other Factors Contributing to Suicide Risk.” The Wheeler Clinic, library.wheelerclinic.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=13738&cn=9. Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
“Robin William’s Suicide.” New York Times, www.nytimes.com/reuters/2018/02/07/arts/07reuters-people-robin-williams-suicides.html. Accessed 20 Apr. 2018.
Smith, Cooper. “Here’s Why Instagram’s Demographics Are So Attractive To Brands.” Buisness Insider, www.businessinsider.com/instagram-demographics-2013-12. Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
“Why XXXTentacion’s IG Stunt Was So Dangerous.” Complex News, 30 Aug. 2017, www.complex.com/search?q=Dr.+Cerel. Accessed 20 Apr. 2018.
Goleman, Daniel. “Pattern of Death.” New York Times, www.nytimes.com/1987/03/18/ nyregion/pattern-of-death-copycat-suicides-among-youths.html. Accessed 21