Sandwiched between the suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef-turned-media personality Anthony Bourdain last week came an alarming new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): While the national suicide rate reached a 30-year high in 2016, the new CDC study reveals that the national suicide rate had increased in nearly every state and across every demographic group between 1999 and 2016 rather than just the poor, white Americans recently subject to public-health concerns over self-harm. Even worse, some 54 percent of those who died of suicide “did not have a known mental-health condition,” according to CDC researchers. Suicide, it seems, is becoming a distinctly American phenomenon.
For those who see suicide as a metric of social isolation in the tradition of legendary sociologist Émile Durkheim, the uptick in suicides might not be all that surprising. While more recently documented increases in the national suicide rate suggest the concentration of self-harm among poor, white Americans reflected a relative decline in social and political power, the uniform rise in suicide detailed in the CDC report shows that suicide increased across all racial and gender groups. Taken with the newfound disparity in pre-existing mental-health symptoms, this suggests another underlying factor that’s driving America’s pandemic of self-harm.
Ironically, it’s the deluge of coverage that came following the Spade and Bourdain suicides that suggest a potential cause: the so-called “suicide contagion,” a term used to describe the process wherein “exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services. While a suicide contagion can occur across small but tightly knit affinity groups like LGBT youths or United States service members subject to uniquely specific types of trauma, celebrity suicides can have a particularly profound effect.
“The deaths of two high-profile people by suicide this week has much more of an impact than less well-known individuals,” Columbia University epidemiologist Madelyn Gould, who studies suicide contagion, explained to the Los Angeles Times. “The impact feels much closer when it’s someone in the public eye because we feel we know them and we make assumptions about their life.”
This poses a question regarding the modern nature of America’s suicide problem: Can an increase in the volume of suicide contagions potentially explain the steady rise in self-harm across all demographic sectors of society?
Potentially. The likelihood of a suicide contagion appears contingent on the composition of the “cluster” in which it occurs—that is, the path that suicide takes through a given social context. And for celebrities like Spade and Bourdain, their deaths touch off suicide spikes based solely on scale. Consider Marilyn Monroe, whose August of 1962 suicide saw a 12 percent increase in suicides over the next 12 months; indeed a study published in February in PLoS One found that the August of 2014 suicide of Robin Williams touched off a 9.85 percent increase in suicides by the following December, resulting in an “excess” of 1,841 suicide cases. When your persona is ubiquitous, it seems, so are your troubles.
But suicide contagions don’t necessarily appear to be just a function of scale, but of intensity as well. Consider the example of U.S. military units, their function in the armed forces predicated on internal cohesion: A 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that suicide attempts among Army soldiers increased in response to previous attempts in the same unit, so far that “the odds of suicide attempt among soldiers in a unit with 5 or more past-year attempts was more than twice that of soldiers in a unit with no previous attempts.” More importantly, this phenomenon isn’t confined to units that see the stress and horror of combat, which suggests the close-knit nature of military units makes the impact of death or injury to fellow soldiers more visceral and impactful to those who themselves never saw combat.
Indeed, the real risk of a suicide contagion is not necessarily due to the reach of a given death, but rather is reflective of the scope and intensity of our relationships with those who take their own lives, celebrities or not. Given that the atomization of American culture has proceeded in due course, it would make sense that communities built on “mechanical solidarity,” in Durkheim’s words, would find themselves vulnerable to the death of a critical link. We’re more isolated and vulnerable than ever, and that makes us more vulnerable to a suicide contagion.