Sunday, April 23, 2006

Is suicide contagious?

“I suppose if you saw all your friends jumping off a cliff, you’d join them?”
A common admonition leveled by a frustrated parent against their impressionable teenage child, if the child starts following the wrong example.
Sadly, we know that copying negative behavior is all too human, with the reality of copycat suicides and the concept of The Werther Effect.

“The nature of copycat suicides suggests that it is a phenomenon that must have been with us since the development of civilization. One of the earliest known associations between the media and suicide arose from Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther), published in 1774. In that work the hero shoots himself after an ill-fated love, and shortly after its publication there were many reports of young men using the same method to commit suicide. This resulted in a ban of the book in several places. Hence the term "Werther effect", used in the technical literature to designate copycat suicides.”

Part of human nature is to be imitative; it’s a natural way to learn. We add to our understanding, through the imitation of example.

A suicide cluster is taken to mean an uncommonly high number of suicides during a brief period of time within a restricted geographical area… Such clusters are described in various population groups and environments such as prisons, mental hospitals, the armed forces, local neighbourhoods and in school.

It also seems natural, that our urge to learn grows and expands as we age.

Those who are most susceptible to this contagion are teenagers … “Suicide clusters,” as the phenomenon is called, occur with few exceptions among those 15 to 24 years of age. “As in many things, adolescents are more imitative in suicide,” says David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego. “Look at hairstyles, slang, clothing styles…... adolescents are much more preoccupied with copying than older people. Their identity is not yet formed, so they’re more concerned with looking like others.” There is some logic behind suicide clusters. The first suicide might give permission to others to carry out the act themselves—much like the teenager’s friend who smokes, or the driver in front of you who speeds. It may also look like the deceased has gotten some sort of reward—attention, pity, maybe higher social status than when he was alive. ….

Unfortunately, there may sometimes seem to be only one solution. “Suicide is an advertisement for a way out of your problems,” he says, “and as with any advertising, if it’s repeated, it’s more effective.”

From imitation, we may modify copied behavior, through adaptation, as we witnessed last fall in France:

Around 40 schools and creches have been attacked by arsonists in the riots which erupted at the end of October - a new phenomenon in France's history of urban unrest.
…..Little remained of the public nursery school in Acheres, west of Paris, other than the snapshots of toddlers stuck to a wall after fire brought down a roof and devoured rooms in the night.

When a blazing car was rammed up against the nursery in Mirail, in the southern city of Toulouse, the rioters did more than trash a building - they shattered a small community.

The loss of a familiar environment with its toys, drawings and plants traumatised the children, one teacher told a community web forum.

"We are going to be split up around several nurseries, brothers and sisters are going to be separated and parents will have to change their travel arrangements," she said…..

Few would suggest the attacks on pre-school facilities are co-ordinated - at most they may be "copycat" attacks.

There needs to be a more public debate on change, on how we define it, what limits may exist on it and what minimums must be expected of it.
For living means change: learning, imitating, adapting. "Growing Up".

[all emphases are mine]


truepeers said...

Suicide is indeed contagious, just as is every human other cultural phenomenon. Those who would isolate the suicidal act as a problem of an individual psychology (just like those liberals who reduce everything to a question of individual will rather than communal truth) obscure the underlying anthropology of us highly mimetic beings. The truth is not so much in our individual heads as it is among us, shared, and the mystery is whether, in our free will, we develop a loving or resentful relationship to it.

Stogie said...

Excellent expository piece, Charles Henry. No doubt you have touched on some of the psychological motivations of young suicide bombers.

Charles Henry said...

Truepeers, you make an excellent point:
"The truth is not so much in our individual heads as it is among us, shared, and the mystery is whether, in our free will, we develop a loving or resentful relationship to it...."

This is of course the incentive to maximize the amount of human interaction and transaction as much as possible, so that it can contribute to an increase in our understanding of the human experience.
When we have systems, in this case fundamentalist islam, that not only places restrictions on these interactions (through the burka and other cultural shackles), but denies the very possibility of these exchanges (through, for example, their bottomless anti-semitism), we fall so far short of our potential spiritual growth.

It comes as no surprise that suicide should be so prevalent among individuals, or cultural groups, who participate in the fewest possible opportunities for growth through contact with other human beings.

Charles Henry said...

Thanks Stogie,
I give Dag a lot of the credit for the inspiration for this post, his earlier piece on indians made me think of how tragically high the suicide rate is for the young natives who fester in the appalling reservation system we have up here.

And I wondered why they don't take others out with them when they kill themselves, in comparison to the current habit among the islamists.
It shows how much contempt the islamists have for the potential for change, how little they value the intellectual and material transaction that Truepeers alludes to in his comment above.

Stogie said...

Your answer to Trupeers could be an article in itself.