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Friday, November 20, 2015

The Atlantic's Silicon Valley Suicides Cover Story and the Risk of Copycat Suicides

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2015 at 12:23 PM

click to enlarge atlantic.jpg

The Atlantic’s
December issue leads with “The Silicon Valley Suicides” by Hanna Rosin, a somber look at the suicide pandemic seizing Palo Alto’s high schools. In the 2014-2015 school year, three current and one graduated student took their own lives, echoing a similar rash of suicides in 2008-2009. The most common method was stepping in front of an oncoming Caltrain.

Rosin, who graduated from Stanford but no longer lives in California, had scarcely arrived back in town to report on the troubling phenomena before she encountered anxious opposition.

Not because she was coming to write about a painful issue that the community is keen to put behind it — although she acknowledges that was a factor. (Diana Kapp investigated the story for San Francisco magazine earlier this year.) 

“I know that the very fact that I’m writing about this and making them confront it again isn’t great for these people, no matter how sensitive I was,” Rosin told me yesterday by phone.

The concern was mostly because experts contend — frantically, frequently, and to whoever will listen — that the mere act of writing about a suicide cluster could incite more suicides. It’s a situation called suicide pathogen, or sometimes just copycat suicide.

“Evidence has accumulated to support the idea that suicidal behavior is ‘contagious,’ in that it can be transmitted from one person to another,” reads a 2013 report from the New York State Psychiatric Institute (just one of the most recent of a raft of clinical and academic studies going back decades).

The report continues: “Suicide rates go up [with] the frequency of stories about suicide. Suicide rates go down following a decrease in the frequency of stories about suicide. A dose-response relationship between reporting and suicide rates has been demonstrated.”

Nobody is saying that talking about suicide, writing a magazine story about suicide, or showing a character commit suicide in a movie (for example) will “make” someone else take his or her own life. Suicides happen for complex psychological reasons difficult to parse. Notice how many of the kids in Rosin’s story are described as seeming happy and well-adjusted right up to — and including — the day they died.

(Rosin herself says, “I found out that you can never really know why someone takes their own life. The closer I got to it, the further away it was.”)

But for a person who is already potentially a danger to themselves, hearing or reading about suicide might be the last straw. Even then we can’t be sure: The American Society for Suicide Prevention’s website says only that copycat suicides are “presumably inspired” by previous reports.

But the statistical pattern happens often enough that you can’t help but put two and two together.

“A nationally publicized suicide [...] increased the suicide rate over the next months by about 2 percent on average —an additional 58 cases,” the New York Times reported in 1987. “The suicide of a famous person had an even greater effect; after Marilyn Monroe's death, the rate rose by 12 percent.” The uptick isn't always the same percentage, but it’s almost always there, decade after decade.

The strange thing is, despite all this study, many in the media still have no idea about copycat suicide risks. I hadn’t heard of such a thing until earlier this year, when I inquired about an on-track BART suicide and got an earful for my trouble. I figured maybe I didn’t have enough years on the job yet, but I found many editors and journalists with decades of experience who were equally astounded by the admonitions. And Rosin herself was initially clueless — until the people of Palo Alto fixed that in a hurry.

“They were on me very hard about this from the very first day,” she says. “As soon as I walked in and introduced myself, I had people emailing me saying, ’Here are guidelines, be sure not to do this, here’s some other stories that did it very badly.’ I assume they were ready because they’d gotten so much media attention already.”

Reading her story, it’s clear she heeded their advice.

Asked why this is still news to newsmakers, Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, says (sounding a touch weary), “I guess I just haven’t been doing my job very well all these years.”

After the suicide of Robin Williams last year, her office went nuts trying to get the word out about how not to exacerbate the situation, even as calls flooded in.

The problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Caltrain just recorded its 20th on-track death for 2015, matching a grim record set in 1995. (That incident appears to have been an accident, but many of the preceding were not.) And the CDC just announced that it will begin studying the Palo Alto teenage suicide epidemic.

Fortunately, there are guidelines. The subject isn’t strictly taboo, but you have to be careful. And the guidelines are often surprising: Don’t, for example, focus too much on the good qualities about whoever has died.

“If the suicide completer's problems are not acknowledged in the presence of these laudatory statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to those who rarely receive positive reinforcement,” warns the CDC.

Similarly, overwhelming displays of grief by family members might appear attractive to someone who feels his or her life lacks love.

A full list of recommendations can be found here.

Finally, I’ve been told that any story addressing the issue should make specific mention of how people can get help. If you’re in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


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Adam Brinklow

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