Copy Cat Suicides: Suicide as a Social Contagion
Updated: Aug 27
- Deekshika Ganesh
Trigger warning: This article contains sensitive content.
Have you found yourself yawning after the person sitting across from you yawns? Or caught yourself smiling while watching a group of friends laugh?
When we think about the word ‘contagious’, the first thing that likely comes to mind is an infectious disease. However, we have also experienced contagious emotions, behaviours or attitudes – a phenomenon called social contagion. The Handbook of Social Psychology defines social contagion as "the spread of affect or behaviour from one crowd participant to another; one person serves as the stimulus for the imitative actions of another."
While most social contagions seem harmless, what if suicide also occurred in the form of social contagions?
According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, exposure to an incidence to suicide or related behaviours is associated with an increase in incidence of similar behaviours, especially in adolescents and young adults. This exposure can be direct (through experiencing suicidal behaviours of a friend or family member) or indirect (through media reports of suicide). Suicidal behaviour may include suicide ideation, preoccupation with suicide, self-harm behaviour etc. There is a pressing need to study the underlying concepts for the usage of the word “contagion” to better explain the spread of suicide, and whether contagion is due to
b) affiliation, or
When a suicide contagion occurs, it increases the likelihood for suicide clusters to develop. A suicide cluster is “the situation where more suicides than expected occur in relation to time, place, or both, and includes three or more deaths.” About 1 to 5 percent of teen suicide occurs in clusters and thus, its development is associated with young adults and teens. In a systematic review of 16 studies, Insel and Gould found a strong association between exposure to the suicidal behaviour of an adolescent peer and a subsequent adolescent suicide attempt.
Closer home, in 1990, India witnessed a suicide cluster after a recommendation of the Mandal Commission Report was implemented, wherein 27% of positions at all levels of Government services was reserved for persons belonging to Other Backward Class (OBC). This sparked widespread unrest amongst the unreserved strata, and in an act of protest a student in New Delhi publicly set himself on fire. This incident which was widely covered and sensationalised by the media. Following this incident, there was an increase in student self-immolation rates around the country.
This is leads us to question
What is the association between suicide contagion and the media?
In 1974, David P. Philips coined “Werther effect” to describe an increase in suicide rates due to imitation following one that was highly publicised by the media. It was named after the protagonist of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s, ‘The Sorrow of Young Werther’ which is said to have led to a spike in suicide rates and in the same manner, as that of the protagonist; however, there is very little evidence to this claim. A meta-analysis demonstrates that greater the media coverage of suicide, greater are the chances of an increase in suicide. Individuals are more susceptible to the contagion effects of suicide if they perceive themselves as being similar to the person in the media story of suicide. Research shows that young people and the elderly are most susceptible to a media induced suicide contagion effect.
Popular media also has a tendency to provide overly simplistic explanations for suicide – inadequately and falsely portraying it as a solution to a problem, or romanticizing it, which may promote suicide contagion. For example, in the popular Netflix show ‘13 Reasons Why’ it was implied like Hannah Baker died by suicide because she was bullied and wanted to get back at those who has done her wrong.
In the race to find that one “breaking news” first, and a pressure for instantaneous information sharing — media tends to sensationalize suicide, especially high-profile ones. The spike in suicide rates following the death of Marilyn Monroe and Robin Williams are some examples indicating the occurrence of suicide contagion. With celebrity suicides, imitative effects on the method of suicide has been strongly observed. For example, Ahn Jae-Hwan, a South Korean Actor died by charcoal burning in 2008, a method that before his death accounted for 1 per cent of all suicide deaths in South Korea, but following his death jumped to approximately 5 per cent. Repeatedly reporting the same suicide, definitive labeling of death as suicide and the manner in which suicide is reported (for instance, dramatic headlines, prominently placed stories like the front page) are all associated with greater increase in suicide rates.
The recent passing of actor Sushant Singh Rajput is being widely covered in the media. I want to bring to focus the media portrayal of his death in June, when the cause of death was reported as suicide. Repeated broadcasting of news, insensitive use of language, and the most outrageous — sharing videos and photos of the deceased actor’s body. Guidelines laid down by the Press Council of India (in accordance with Mental Health Act, 2017 and WHO guidelines) for reporting of suicide were flouted by many media outlets.
Can the media play a preventive role in suicidal behaviours?
One psychology theory focuses on how media influence on the occurrence of suicides and suicidal behaviours is related to suicidogenic conditions – such as high unemployment, high divorce rates, low religious attendance rates). This is likely because such conditions would cause more people to be on the verge of suicide, statistically. This is relevant considering the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives — be it personal, social, or economic. Social isolation, unemployment, thwarted plans, family conflicts, and uncertainty are leading to significant amounts of distress and difficulty in coping. To put it simply, there is a parallely rising mental health crisis.
This makes it even more pertinent for media reporting to be responsible, as well as to enable constructive conversations surrounding mental health and suicide (and its prevention) to spread awareness and correct for disinformation.
While there are many studies indicating the damaging effect of media portrayals of suicide, there are few studies that indicate how the media has had preventive effects on the occurrence of suicide. For instance, through newspaper blackouts, reducing reportage, or by switching to a more sensitive quality of media reporting.
According to a paper by Sisask and Värnik, “mass media imitation theory presumes that if modelling works in one way (copycat suicides), it can work also in the opposite way (positive model)” Relatedly, Niederkrotenthaler T. and colleagues coined the “Papageno effect” — after a character in Mozart’s opera, ‘The Magic Flute’ — to describe for the protective impact of media reporting on suicide rates. For example, following the death of Nirvana’s lead singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain in Seattle, media reports focused more on the treatment for mental health, encouragement of seeking help and suicide prevention. While they celebrated ‘the artist Kurt Cobain,’ they condemned the act of suicide and discussions were centred around the effect his death had on his family. What was noticed was an increase in suicide crisis calls and the anticipated werther effect did not occur.
While it is undoubtedly difficult to establish a cause and effect relation between exposures to suicide (either direct or indirect) and the occurrence of suicide contagion, there definitely is as association when it comes to people who are vulnerable or at risk of suicide. This reason is enough to push for a better structure for mental healthcare in India, dissemination of correct information and destigmatising suicide and mental health in general.
Important note: Please find a list government approved suicide prevention helplines here.
Deekshika Ganesh is a research assistant in the Department of Psychology, and a mental health advocate at Nolmë Labs, an academic research and science communication collective. She is interested in pursuing positive psychology as a professional psychologist in the future.