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Is Suicide Contagious?

The ripple effect...

While much of the entertainment world and its devoted audience continue to grapple with the abrupt death of a beloved public figure, the loss of Robin Williams seems to have triggered an avalanche of panic and sadness.

While much of the entertainment world and its devoted audience continue to grapple with the abrupt death of a beloved public figure, the loss of Robin Williams seems to have triggered an avalanche of panic and sadness.

Suicide is a scary word. It stirs up all of our atrocious emotions, the ones we desperately try to bury far from consciousness, and forces us to stare directly at them, and worse, feel them. Fear, sadness, rage. These are primitive, raw, agonizing emotions that most human beings repress in order to simply get through the day.

I’m not surprised by the onslaught of despair that has entered my office over the past few days, since news of Robin Williams’ tragic death. People are shocked and deeply saddened by his untimely death. Blogs and newsfeeds are exploding with loving tributes and heartfelt essays about humor, depression, suicide, tears of a clown, bipolar illness, and so forth. You can feel the collective grief as each of us, quietly or publicly, wrestles to find meaning and answers.

It is understandable that this heartrending loss would ignite emotional chaos throughout the sea of strangers that hardly knew him. Even so, I am intrigued by the extent to which people are profoundly impacted and what, exactly, is driving this widespread panic.

Over the past couple of days since the news broke, my clients have unleashed a startling connection to his death. Each client, one after the other, has opened the session with reference to his passing. “Oh my god, what about Robin Williams?” Or, “I just cannot get past this.” Or, “His suicide made me think about my sister.” And of course, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Each client brings his or her own interpretation of the recent events and feels the need to vent, to explore, to express enormous grief. Not only are they sad and tearful, not only are they stunned and heartbroken—they are terrified, and it feels very personal.

Suicide scares us. Discovering that someone they knew, even remotely, had the way, the desire, the means, and the motivation to follow through with an act so final, so dreadful to most of us, so absolute, is beyond their comprehension. Yet, at the same time, it feels uncomfortably close to home.

Someone else’s suicide feels dangerously intimate.

Whether or not someone has actually experienced thoughts of suicide, most of us recognize it is an option for each and every person that walks this earth. To be sure, many people contemplate suicide. Some of them are severely depressed. Some are philosophers. Some are curious thinkers, writers, creative minds that wander back and forth through the innards of existential commentary. If one is psychologically healthy, or genetically fortunate, suicide is just another word for a phenomenon that most of us will never completely understand. But for those suffering from severe depression, the option is but a heartbeat away.

Every day, I am told by many, it takes extraordinary effort to pass those open windows, to make the choice to get through just one more day. It is unimaginably hard. They are fighting again a brain that is leading them in the other direction. A brain, diseased by distorted thinking, twisting them around to make them believe that not being here is the better, safer, stronger option, when the pain becomes too unbearable.

Can we possibly expect to be able to pull someone back from the brink of despair? Surely, I have dedicated my professional life to the belief that I can, or at the very least, I can try. So we put safety plans into place. We mobilize family support. We offer distractions for the brain, by removing temptations or objects of potential harm. We support. We love. We stand in between a depressed soul and the lies their brain is telling them. We hope, above all, that we can avert a crisis. And then, we pray that we have done enough.

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.

There is a small window of time and space, where suicidal men and women can be reached. Before they jump, before they leap, before they drown.

Can we get there in time? Sometimes, we can. Other times, we are left to grieve. Those of us on the outside, looking in, must remain vigilant at all times. Even then, it may not be enough. Those who are suffering with overpowering pain can only put one foot in front of the other and keep going, keep breathing, keep trying, keep believing that it will not always feel this way, and if you can make it to tomorrow, you have a chance at hope, and relief.

Ask for help.

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