Suicide is sometimes contagious

Suicide is an important public health issue. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of suicides in Canada in a given year ranged from a high of 3,765 in 2003 to a low of 3,606 in 2000. 3,613 people in Canada died by suicide in 2004. Compare that with the number of people who have died from H1N1 in Canada during this pandemic (373 to Dec 10, 2009). Now also compare the public health efforts to avert deaths due to H1N1 to the efforts to combat suicide. It is estimated that 90% of those who commit suicide are suffering from depression, another mental illness or a substance abuse disorder, which could potentially be diagnosed and treated.

In Canada, suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 25 to 29 and 40 to 44, and for women aged 30 to 34. It is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 24. For each completed suicide there are 100 attempts, and over 23,000 Canadians are hospitalized each year for a suicide attempt. Think of what that costs society every year in lost productivity, health care costs and in human misery. For every suicide or attempted suicide there are other family, friends and acquaintances affected.

There is considerable evidence that media reporting of suicides is linked to copycat suicides, especially among those under age 24. A decrease in suicide rates has been observed when newspapers are on strike with a predictable rise in suicides once they resume publishing.

In the 1980's there was a sensational case in Austria in which many people started committing suicide by jumping in front of subway trains. It was felt that the increase was due to the way the suicides were being reported in the media. They were being sensationalized and glorified leading to copycat suicides. The Austrian Association for suicide prevention produced media guidelines to educate journalists on how to report suicides so as to reduce the copycat effect. After the guidelines were put into effect subway suicides decreased by 75% over the next 5 years.

In another study aimed at gathering evidence about the association of suicides with media coverage, investigators interviewed suicide attempters from the same time and locale and found that 89% reported awareness of the media coverage of earlier suicides.

Suicidologists, public health officials, researchers, psychiatrists, psychologists, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and the Centre for Disease Control have provided media guidelines for the safe reporting of suicide.

These guidelines suggest it is best to avoid describing details of the method, the word suicide in the headline, photos of the deceased, admiration of the deceased, the idea that suicide is inexplicable, repetitive or excessive coverage, front page coverage, romanticized reasons for the suicide and approval of the suicide.

It is also optimal to discuss, in the same coverage, alternatives to suicide (e.g. treatment), community resource information for those who have suicidal ideation, warning signs of suicidal behaviour, and how to approach a suicidal person.

It is clear that the prevention of suicide is everyone's business and cannot be accomplished with media guidelines alone. Given that 90% are associated with mental illness and/or substance abuse, earlier identification and treatment of people suffering from these disorders is important.

 

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