Suicide contagion. Yep, I said it, and yes it is a real thing. It’s a dangerous thing that follows a publicized suicide of any kind, but specifically, a celebrity suicide. I think it’s safe to say, that along with a number of contributing factors from the media, this new attitude of slacktivism the world has taken to across social media just adds to it.
Suicide contagion is defined as “the process whereby one suicide or suicidal act within a school, community, or geographic area increases the likelihood that others will attempt or complete suicide.” There has been data collected from over 300 years that has shown a high spike in suicides surrounding publicized deaths, and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has been able to narrow it down to six things surrounding the way those suicides are shown through the media and across social media that contribute to the phenomenon.
1 – Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide.
Concerning Robin Williams death, this one seemed to come about within the week that followed. As news spread that Robin had been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s, people turned to that as an explanation.
This caused two main reactions and became the ‘simplified explanation’: “Oh, well I guess he was just too afraid/too upset by/too crushed by his diagnosis so he killed himself” or “Well, lots of people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s and don’t kill themselves. That’s no excuse, it’s cowardly. He probably never even thought of his family. What a stupid reason.”
Parkinson’s was not why Robin Williams committed suicide. It was likely the catalyst that pushed him over the edge, but there was a whole lot of other things going other than the diagnosis. If he was battling as in depth depression as it has been suggested he was, then likely the last hopes he had of ever ‘getting better’ were doused in flames with the diagnosis and it pushed him over.
There are so many factors that lead to someone committing suicide that presenting one, simplistic explanation is dangerous. It plays down the fact that mental illness and depression are extremely complex issues, and turns it to something that people believe is just ‘fixable’.
2 – Engaging in repetitive, ongoing or excessive reporting of suicide in the news.
In the hours and days following the announcement of Robin’s suicide, it was everywhere. Every fifteen minutes, news stations were talking about it. Radio stations, news sites and everyone who provides ‘news-worthy’ commentary were posting dozens of articles from their staff writers on Facebook and websites about his death. It was unending.
According to the CDC, “Repetitive and ongoing coverage, or prominent coverage, of a suicide tends to promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicide among at-risk persons, especially among persons 15-24 years of age.”
They’re not saying don’t talk about it, but the conversation needs to become a more serious, focused one that surrounds the issues at hand rather than the continual discussion of a specific person’s suicide. The more the specifics are discussed, the more we cultivate the contagion culture.
3 – Providing sensational coverage of suicide.
As we saw with Robin’s death, while some news organizations chose to be respectful, many chose to report the morbid details of the suicide — from how it was done, to the injuries sustained and the condition he was found in. They throw in dramatic photos, hovering in helicopters over the homes of the deceased (see ABC, who, on the same page where they published the family’s request for privacy, provided a link for people to watch a live aerial view of the activity going on at their home), and even sometimes going as far as getting ‘expert testimony’ from physicians regarding the details of HOW the way they killed themselves would have worked.
While one might think that seeing the gruesome details would deter someone considering suicide, it in fact does the opposite, creating an almost ‘obsessive’ consideration of suicide. Keep in mind, someone who is thinking of suicide and bordering on the edge is NOT mentally stable. Their capability to process this the way someone who is stable can is completely different.
4 – Reporting ‘how-to’ descriptions of suicide.
This ties in with the one above, where news networks and people covering the story actually provide the details of how the person killed themselves.
My response to every single person, network and media person can be summed up in four words… ARE YOU FUCKING STUPID? I don’t swear a lot, but this to me is a situation that warrants it. How stupid do you have to be to actually describe, in detail, how someone killed themselves. You might as well hand suicidal folk all over the country a manual on how to end their own lives. You’ve just given them the most details they will EVER need to complete that.
5 – Presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends.
Here is where the beloved ‘Genie you’re free’ image that went viral comes into play. My Twitter and Facebook feeds EXPLODED with this image, and while I get the sentiment of it, people also need to understand how dangerous that sentiment is. While to some people, it may just seem a fitting farewell, the fact is it is presenting the idea that death is freedom, and it’s a solution to extreme depression.
Death is not freedom, death is an end to everything. Spreading something like ‘Genie, you’re free’ gives people who are in pain, who are suffering, and who have been swallowed by the black hole of depression the idea that suicide is a way out, and trust me, as someone who has been there several times, I can assure you, if you are that far gone, freedom sounds awfully appealing.
6 – Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide.
This one is a tough one, because it ties into the mourning process, and often results in over-coverage of memorials and thoughts that focus mostly on the good of the person. Both of these things need to happen, but the bigger discussion needs to be around the struggles the person faced, the fact that they were sick and ways to help those who are facing the same. If those struggles take the back-burner to mourning and the overwhelming positive characteristics of the person, the suicidal behaviour has a tendency to become appealing to those who are already close to that point. It gives them that idea of ‘well, they were still a good person, and they needed out… so I can get out too and still be a good person, because the good parts will still be remembered.’
And that brings me to what I believe is the final, and possibly the worst two culprits – the overwhelming, negative responses that contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health (calling it cowardly, selfish, attacking the person and not recognizing that they fell victim to a very difficult, very dangerous illness) and, here’s that word again, slacktivism.
The first has the potential to push people further. They develop a fear that if they seek help for these feelings, they will be condemned and treated as ‘awful people’ for ever thinking about the possibility of suicide. That leads to further isolation and feeling alone.
The second follows more than just response to suicide. Social media has created an atmosphere where people believe that just because they share, like, or make a comment about an issue, they’ve done their part. That is so far from the truth.
Slacktivism, according to the unofficial definition is “a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist.”
Especially with something like mental health, a situation where more people need to get talking, this attitude is highly dangerous. For starters, it gives people who are suffering momentary hope that comes crashing down, when in a few days, the very same people who were speaking out about the need to give the issue a voice are more concerned about Kim Kardashian’s ass than helping to raise awareness.
I have no problem with people wanting to get the conversation going, surrounding any issue. But do something about it. Sharing, liking, commenting on or creating your own post is NOT being an activist. It’s not speaking out about an issue, and it’s not doing ANYTHING AT ALL.
If you’re going to get involved, then find a way to get involved. Become a donor to an organization that helps fund research and other things related to that cause. Get involved in a community support group, spread the message regularly, but DO SOMETHING real. Don’t just use social media to make a short, one-time impact to make yourself feel better. Take a moment, step away from your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and find out what you can really do to make a difference.