In honor of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, it’s important to discuss the effect suicide can have on different people. Secondhand suicide is an umbrella term representing both social and personal factors that can contribute to a ripple effect of suicide. Because the nature of suicide is tragic and often romanticized in books and media, suicide clusters and copycat suicides often occur. Individually, suicide can also be triggered due to the loss of a loved one and feelings of helplessness. The topic of secondhand suicide has become prevalent and is being studied by many researchers.
Secondhand suicide also refers to feelings of apathy and desire to end one’s life. People who are willing to die but won’t do it themselves hope that something else will do it for them that is out of their control such as disease, car accident, etc. This gray area is often overlooked when discussing suicide prevention. But like with suicide, these individuals may end up taking more risks because they see no value in their life. This can be just as deadly and should be acknowledged when bringing awareness. I’ve noticed that a common trend when I was a teenager and is still going on today is the “sad girl” era. Social media such as Myspace and Tumblr circulated a lot of content involving romanticized pictures and quotes of suicide. Even now with the recent news of the effects of climate change, many are joking about how they would be okay if the world ended soon. There is a sense of apathy and disassociation that is unfortunately being taken as a joke when in reality, it limits innovation and a desire to bring forth change. This must be recognized as a more serious issue.
Suicide clusters and copycat suicides have historically been triggered by shows such as “13 Reasons Why” and celebrity deaths such as Marilyn Monroe. Her death was the first ever to cause a 12% rise in suicides. In the 1970s, David Phillips coined the term “The Werther Effect” to represent the increase in suicides after a highly publicized suicide or death. Because there is a direct correlation between media coverage of suicide and contagion, results indicate that those in a “vulnerable state” should be protected from exposure to stories of suicide (Olson, 2012). However, in today’s society, this is almost virtually impossible. So it’s up to the media to practice discretion and consider suicide contagion when reporting on celebrity deaths.
According to Bridge et al. (2019), the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” was significantly associated with a 29% increase in suicide rates among children aged 10-17 during April 2017. The results suggest that the show may have elevated suicide awareness, but it also appears to have been associated with increased suicidal ideation. Suicide contagion is often fostered by stories that sensationalize and glorify depictions of suicidal behavior, present suicide as a means of accomplishing a goal such as community change or revenge, or offer potential prescriptions of “how-to” die by suicide. Responsible portrayals of suicide, mental illness, and related issues have the potential to promote awareness, reduce stigma, and refute misperceptions that suicide cannot be prevented. Unfortunately, media depictions about suicide also have the potential to do harm, often through a process in which direct or indirect exposure to suicide increases the risk of subsequent suicidal behavior.
Within communities and organizations, suicide clusters can be prevented by establishing a group or agency that can intervene after a major event or death. Their role would be to connect community members or employees with resources from mental health professionals, support groups, suicide crisis centers and hotlines, school counselors, etc. This coordinating committee should have a response plan established so that everyone can get help when they need it.
On a personal level, overwhelming grief and regret can cause someone to commit suicide. This is often seen in parents who lose children and blame themselves for their death. There is no easy way for us to grieve after a tragedy, and the hardest part about grief is that only time will heal all. Whether it takes months, years, or decades, everyone grieves in their own way. Having people you could turn to such as family, friends, and support groups can help a great deal in the healing process. Sharing stories of loss can help you understand and empathize with others. Also, practicing spiritual and religious customs and traditions can help us come to terms with the afterlife. And if possible, always try to seek out a mental health professional when having thoughts of suicide.
Other resources for suicide prevention
Bridge, J. A., Greenhouse, J. B., Ruch, D., Stevens J., Ackerman, J., Sheftall, A. H., Horowitz, J. M., Kelleher, K. J. & Campo, J. V. (2019). Association between the release of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and suicide rates in the United States: An interrupted time series analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 59(2), 236-243. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2019.04.020
Olson, R. (2012). Suicide contagion and suicide clusters. Centre for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/suicidecontagion/