Suicide Contagion


By Bridget Phetasy

The first high-profile suicide that really struck me was Kurt Cobain. It was April 1994 and I was 16.

My coming-of-age soundtrack was the music of Nirvana; I felt Cobain understood a pain I was deeply familiar with, not just because I was an angsty teen, but because I grew up under the shadow of mental illness and addiction.

One of my primary parental figures was in and out of psychiatric wards my entire adolescence. They would threaten to kill themselves and disappear for days, leaving us wondering if they were dead or alive. It ran in their family; two of their siblings had died by suicide. The constant fear of losing our loved one traumatized everyone in my immediate family over and over again.

But what living with someone who threatened suicide really did more than anything was made it seem like an option.

I remember being in my room that April, listening to Nirvana, wanting to die. And then Kurt Cobain killed himself, and the first emotion I felt upon hearing the news scared me: I was jealous.

According to a study done in the Seattle area two years after Cobain’s death, the “Werther Effect” didn’t materialize. The Werther Effect is named after Goethe’s 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” that supposedly caused a rash of copycat suicides in Europe after the romantic depiction of the hero’s suicide.

Post-Cobain, Seattle set up a crisis center and devoted resources to community outreach. A huge focus was placed on suicide prevention and intervention in the media — instead, crucially, of the suicide itself.

Flash forward to August 2014. I was 10 months sober, caught in the grip of depression and suicidal ideation, struggling to put myself back together after decades of addiction but overwhelmed by a crushing sensation of hopelessness and nihilism. I was in that special purgatory those of us who have been there know all too well: I didn’t necessarily want to kill myself — but I wanted to die.

And then Robin Williams killed himself. I found myself obsessed with the coverage and moving more from thinking and into planning. I pored over all the gory details of his death. Again I found myself jealous that he had what I perceived as the “courage” to do what I couldn’t.

Today I’m glad I didn’t — but the media didn’t help.

One meme that went viral after Williams’ death depicted Genie, the character Williams voiced in “Aladdin,” and said, “You’re free now, Genie.” How I longed to be free; free of my body, my pain, my anguish. That stupid meme was whispering sweet nothings to the part of my brain that was telling me that the only solution to my problems — was death. Not just the only solution — the best solution. It was a lie, but at the time, I believed it.

Suicide contagion is a well-documented phenomenon. Study after study has been done on the increase in suicides after a high-profile death like Marilyn Monroe or Robin Williams.

We’ve experienced a rash of celebrity suicides lately, and the sensationalism can make this option seem attractive.

Kate Spade was also fixated on Williams’ death, her sister claimed. And on Friday we heard of the tragic passing of Anthony Bourdain. We also recently lost the musician Avicii to suicide.

In all these cases, I’ve heard more details about their deaths than I care to know, and I can’t help but feel like the way we’re covering these deaths isn’t helping.

Suicide is rising in the United States and, according to the CDC, has increased by 25 percent since 1999; “more than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental condition.”

What can be done? Start with media coverage. Here are some recommendations from professionals and endorsed by the CDC:

Don’t glorify the act or the persons who commit suicide. Don’t present it as an answer. Don’t engage in repetitive reporting of the suicide in the news. Avoid simplistic explanations and graphic descriptions of the technical details.

If you’ve never wanted to kill yourself, it’s hard to comprehend the feeling, but it’s insidious and ever-present. Once the idea got in my head, it was like a worm that infected the network, exploiting the vulnerabilities in my operating system. When I was deep in that darkness, the thought was always with me, haunting me, waiting for just the right moment or excuse to tip me over the line from ideation to planning to action.

Irresponsible media coverage of high-profile deaths can be that tipping point, that weakness in the system the worm has been looking for, the tacit permission to cross the line you didn’t know you were looking for. It’s easy to go from “I’m depressed” to, “Well if they can’t live with all their money and fame, why should I?” You never know where that line is. Until you’ve crossed it.

And by then, often, it’s too late.


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