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The Social Contagion of Suicide

High-profile celebrity suicides can trigger copycats.

Source: Pixabay/geralt

I woke up this morning to a text message from a friend who sent me a link to a CNN alert announcing Anthony Bourdain’s death by an apparent suicide. Immediately, alarm bells starting ringing in my head. First it was Kate Spade; now, in the same week, this recent report of Bourdain. My fear is that the coverage of these two suicides could lead to an even larger number of suicide attempts by those individuals in our culture who are already at risk.

The social contagion of suicide is a well-documented phenomenon in social psychology that can trace its roots all the way back to the 1770s, when the publication of Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, spawned a number of copycat suicides closely imitating the suicide of the protagonist from the novel. In fact, the copycat effect was so pronounced that after empirical research, it led to the development of the term the "Werther Effect." This effect specifically identifies that the publication of a suicide can serve as a trigger for a spike in subsequent suicide attempts, many often imitating the method of the high-profile one as it was reported.

Research spanning centuries has since firmly established that suicide is susceptible to social contagion effects. Social contagion is exactly what it sounds like — it is when behaviors spread throughout a community. Specifically in the case of suicide, suicide clusters begin to develop. Suicide clusters reflect spikes in suicides that can be traced to a particular suicide that served as the initial trigger. Oftentimes these clusters will emerge in particular communities that are either at risk or personally impacted in some way by the original suicide. Today, given the power of social media and the extent to which celebrity coverage is pervasive and persistent, clusters can even emerge from repeated and exhaustive coverage of public figures who commit suicides. Often there are also specific markers that enable researchers to trace if subsequent suicides are part of a developing cluster — chief among them the mode of killing, which is commonly imitated in cases of social contagion.

We are all social beings. No person exists in isolation or lives as an island, so who or what we are exposed to significantly impacts our understanding of the world and our subsequent behaviors, whether we realize it or not. In the case of copycat suicides, exposure to a high-profile suicide does not predict contagion for everyone; however, those individuals who are already vulnerable or at risk for self-harm, or who have grappled with suicide ideation, would be the most susceptible to these effects.

While it is challenging to curb the effects of social contagion following the suicide of a high-profile public figure, the media can be vigilant in what it discloses regarding the death and how the suicide is covered. The spectacle that frequently follows corporate media framing of celebrity events raises a risk for contagion. In particular, reporting on the specific and graphic details of the mode of killing heightens the likelihood of triggering copycats, because it gives consumers details that can be used for imitation. Similarly, glorifying the act of suicide in any way can also heighten the risk for imitation.

Framing the suicide from the perspective of the survivors and as a failure for the victim to have been properly treated for potential mental illnesses and/or to be supported in other ways has the potential to mitigate the impact of contagion. Moreover, offering specific pathways for help for those consumers who feel triggered by these reports can further serve to lessen the potential for the reported suicide to serve as a tragic catalyst for self-harm among others.

The social contagion of suicide has a long history of being documented in the social psychological literature. Researchers have more recently started to grapple with the reality that suicide is not the only problematic behavior susceptible to this effect. Indeed, it appears that mass shootings may follow a similar pattern of copycat behavior, raising the stakes for corporate media to more responsibly cover these tragedies, so that exposure to them does not spark future acts of violence, be they harm against self or others.

For Bourdain and Spade, it appears that their suicides were not able to be prevented. I offer my deepest condolences to their families and loved ones. Perhaps the best way to honor both of them would be to focus on how they lived, rather than on how they died. If we are further able to use this cultural moment to raise awareness for the fact that suicide is in fact preventable, and individuals who are struggling can find a way out of the darkness, then perhaps both of their deaths will have not been in vain.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with thoughts of self-harm you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time or chat online:

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2018