A celebrity commits suicide. Media broadcasts the details of this suicide by discussing the personality of the perpetrator, how it was done and what were the possible reasons for doing so. This is then followed by an average increase in suicide rate in the regions the celebrity was popular in. Such acts of emulating the celebrity suicide is often referred to as copycat suicide (strange choice of words for such a sad behavior). The phenomenon where a publicized suicide acts as a trigger for succession of suicides of vulnerable people is called as suicide contagion. These contagions usually form suicide clusters that come in two forms: Point clusters and Mass clusters.
Point clusters appear when a bunch of copycat suicides occur in a small region over a short period of time. The primary cause for point clusters tends to be the spread of information via social learning i.e. word of mouth via neighbors, friends or families that spread the news (including the details) of original suicide. Mass clusters on the other hand [clusters in time but not in space]. This means that the media plays a huge role in spreading the information of original suicide (of a famous overall liked personality) which extends the space (geography) in which the copycat suicides happen (still within short stretch of time). It is important to note that these copycat suicides are not necessarily of people who were going to commit suicide anyway. As Alex Mesoudi notes:
Moreover, suicide rates do not show a corresponding drop some time after the publicised suicide, suggesting that the immediate increase is not caused by already-vulnerable people committing suicide earlier than they otherwise would have . The effect appears to be restricted to the suicides of famous people who are afforded some degree of prestige in their society (e.g. entertainment celebrities); in contrast, non-celebrities and famous figures who have negative reputations (e.g. cold war spies), both of whom lack prestige, have smaller or non-significant effects on national suicide rates , .
But why? One hypothesis says that broadcasting high profile suicides tends to glorify the end of life. People crave attention and seek out ways to increase their self-worth. If they are certain that these requirements are never going to be addressed while living, commiting suicide in a dramatic fashion might be their final but potentially most effective way of addressing it. A meta-analysis somewhat confirmed the media’s role in increase of copycat suicidal behavior after a high profile suicide:
A total of 293 findings from 42 studies on the impact of publicized suicide stories in the media on the incidence of suicide in the real world were analyzed by logistic regression analysis. Studies measuring the effect of either an entertainment or political celebrity suicide story were 14.3 times more likely to find a copycat effect than studies that did not. Studies based on a real as opposed to fictional story were 4.03 times more likely to uncover a copycat effect. Research based on televised stories was 82% less likely to report a copycat effect than research based on newspapers. A review of recent events in Austria and Switzerland indicates that suicide prevention organizations can successfully convince the media to change the frequency and content of their suicide coverage in an effort to reduce copycat effects.
But other than media sensationalism, there is also the idea of social proof that is considered as a possible reason for some copycat suicides. Social proof is simply the human tendency to follow the norm in ambiguous or confusing situations. For suicides, social proof model hypothesizes that copycats might be trying to “imitate those who seem similar, despite or even because of societal disapproval.” So some empathy for and a strong psychological assocaition with the perpetrator of suicide can possibly create point and mass clusters of copycat suicides.
Research on media’s role in creating Mass clusters has forced journalism in many countries to add restrictions while covering suicide stories. MediaWise (an organisation from UK) published a review covering many examples of media coverage of suicide across the globe and citing instances when correct coverage potentially saved lives. WHO urges to “keep the word ‘suicide’ out of the headline, don’t release details or romanticize the death, limit the number of stories, and bury whatever stories you run in the middle of the paper or the broadcast”.
But of course these suggestions only apply somewhat to the phenomenon of suicide contagion associated with copycat suicides. Farmers’ suicides in India will certainly qualify as a contagion but cannot be addressed by above suggestions because the root causes are socio-economical in nature. Although, it will be interesting to find out whether social proof plays some (if any) role in creating a point clustering contagion of these suicides.