The suicides of Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, and Chester Bennington prompted a common concern: would kids copy these celebrities? This concern is used to justify anger and hostility. It is used to support “suicide is selfish”. The concern is understandable, copycat suicides are real. The people most at risk to copycat are already vulnerable to suicidality through mental illness. Teen suicide is a topic to be concerned about – suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in adolescence. Mental illness typically onsets around the age of 14. Studies have shown there is always a risk of copycat suicides after a celebrity suicide. The logic of telling kids that suicide is selfish, terrible, and wrong is, in my opinion, as effective as preventing pregnancy by giving kids abstinence only education. [Spoiler alert, it’s not]
Copycat suicides, also called the Werther effect, do happen. The phenomenon was named after men in Europe began committing suicide in the same manner of a lovesick character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s fiction, “The Sorrows of Young Werner”. When Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, the national suicide rate increased by 12%. Many had feared the same would happen when Kurt Cobain killed himself. Contrary to opinion, suicide rates decreased or remained the same in the wake of his suicide. After Robin Williams’ suicide, prevention groups and hotlines saw a huge spike in calls and contact from people in need of help. Many said Williams’ tragic suicide raised awareness and opened and changed the dialogue. In all likelihood, the recent suicides of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington will not increase suicide rates – particularly among adolescents. AFSP stresses the need for responsible journalism, large headlines with Chris & Chester’s modality of death, 911 tapes, and photos of their corpses directly go against good taste and recommendation, so there is a risk of the Werther Effect given social media’s prevalence – you can’t skim anything without still seeing references – good and bad. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be increased awareness of the actual largest at-risk suicide population – white males age 45- 65. Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington are two public examples of the most common demographic who commit 7 out of 10 suicides.
The repeated concern is celebrity suicides glamorize suicide to impressionable kids. I’ll pass on commentary of the inherent selfishness of blaming a suffering human – regardless of fame or stature for someone else’s actions. Glamorous suicide has been in the press since 13 Reasons Why came out on Netflix. I would argue celebrity suicides humanize it – both for the kids and the parents attempting to figure out how to talk to their kids. These suicides underscore that anyone is susceptible to mental illness and awareness is important. Many celebrities are openly discussing their struggles in reaction to the mounting suicide and psychiatric diagnosis rates. I think this trend is hugely empowering, and I hope it continues. The reality is mental illness can cause suicide in any demographic. Income, success, etc. will not insulate anyone from reality. Education is paramount, and the more the message of not being alone, not being crazy, and nothing being wrong with you is reiterated, the more success everyone can have in preventing suicide.
Teen pregnancy rates are lowest in states that use comprehensive sex education. Similarly, a parent who fosters compassion and understanding to their children and mental illness as a whole will better be able to talk about suicide. Understandably, kids may not want to talk to their parents, so parents may have to talk at them. Parents can use the abstinence-only approach and tell their kids how awful this is, how awful these men are, and so forth. This type of messaging can instill guilt and fear in anyone and can prevent kids from speaking openly about their struggles. It is difficult for someone to get help if they are afraid of asking for help. If a teen believes their parents will be angry, because they watched them calling suicide selfish, or liberally tossing “Crazy” as a dirty adjective, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to say “I want to kill myself.”
When 13 Reasons Why came out on Netflix, many were divided saying it could help them talk to their kids and worried that it would inspire their kids. My largest problem with the show was giving suicide a revenge theme. Hannah Baker’s struggles were understandable, but the tone of these tapes gave messaging that she was getting back at the people who hurt her by blaming them individually tape by tape. I believe this set the dialogue back, and fostered “suicide is selfish”. To me, this is the very definition of glamorized suicide. If nothing else, can we all collectively ask, “Who the fuck has that kind of time to record these tapes?” What I did love about the show is how they depicted the parents’ and friends’ reactions, because I do think their pain was portrayed accurately. The neatly packaged answers, though, not so much. Hollywood’s version of suicide minimizes the hell of suicidality. It packages the complexity of mental illness in 13 neat reasons. It’s bullshit. It should not be lumped in with the tragedy of actual suicides. There is no glamour when a father of 6 takes his own life. There is also no large, meticulously thought out plot to suicide. (If it can get the conversations going, though, binge away!)
While increased awareness of mental illness is great; I think the mark is still missed of the reality of mental illness and suicide – especially when it comes to teens. Bullying, peer pressure, etc. are typically the forefront in the press and fictionalized shows. While yes, these exacerbate the problem, an underlying mental illness will make suicide more likely (90% of suicides have a diagnoseable underlying mental illness). One term I almost never hear discussed: Intrusive Thoughts. I am a textbook statistic, my mental illnesses surfaced in 7th/8th grade. At 14 years old, I had my first intrusive thought. Immediately, I thought I was both crazy and evil. I had been taught people who commit suicide go to hell. It is a mortal sin. Naturally, when I had an intrusive thought to kill myself and began having the urges to cut myself, the war against myself and my own mind began. It would take me 20 years to learn the term “intrusive thought” after being misdiagnosed with schizo-affective disorder (and being treated to a cocktail of anti-psychotics that would have knocked a baby elephant unconscious).
Words like “depression” and “anxiety” are used often, but to someone who has neither, do they mean anything? While warning signs do help people spot the illness, I worry they are still generic. If these celebrity suicides indicate anything, it’s “I had no idea…they didn’t seem suicidal leading up to…” I liked how 13 Reasons Why gave insight to how shitty kids are to each other, but it all focused on externals. If you want to try to understand or see depression or anxiety in action, listen to how your children speak. “I wish I was dead!” as a reaction to getting grounded is actually less concerning than a shift in personality and demeanor. “I am fat”, “I can’t do anything right.”, “What’s the point?”, “I can’t take this” are words I remember saying, journaling, and ruminating. “Everyone hates me” and “I just make everyone miserable” were pretty common too. Many of these started as intrusive thoughts, which ultimately became, “I should kill myself.”
Intrusive thoughts happen to almost everyone. Unbidden, unwanted thoughts arise with imagery or emotions. Anxiety, ADHD, Depression, and OCD all have intrusive thoughts associated with them. Intrusive thoughts can cause additional anxiety and depression, as the frequency and occurrence can be confusing and upsetting. If someone attempts to fight these intrusive thoughts, they tend to worsen. With the rising rates of ADHD, anxiety, and depression diagnoses, these two words should become common household terminology. After 20 years of being terrified of my damn brain, someone finally explained to me what was going on. Thankfully, now I can explain it to my kids. My daughter said, once, “Mommy my brain told me to kick the dog.” At 7, she gave me a clear indicator about intrusive thought. My response? “Baby, my brain tells me silly things all the time, and I tell my brain to be quiet, or I color for a few minutes until I quiet down.” Suicidal thoughts and ideation can come as intrusive thoughts, and this is extremely frightening and confusing, as I can tell you first hand. If you have a child diagnosed with ADHD, this is a very real potential for them. Intrusive thoughts are also most common during times of high stress. High School, peer pressure, bullying, pimples, and so forth are a breeding ground of anxiety.
If kids are empowered to speak about the goings on in their minds, without fear of repercussion or judgement, they can better communicate the issues they are having. We all know kids watch you like a hawk, so if you dismiss people as “crazy” or people who commit suicide as “selfish” you will perpetuate the mental health stigma. It was not until someone told me I was having intrusive thoughts and how I can work with myself did I get these under control. My intrusive thoughts became so bad, I was hospitalized, because I knew I was going to kill myself without help. I have described my brain as concert level noise when I’m stressed. I’ll state the obvious: if you as a parent struggle with mental illness, the likelihood is high your kids will too, so how you speak about yourself and your struggles is key. If you have a genetic history of mental illness, you should be aware of symptoms in your children. If you find your child behaving irrationally, and they cite their brain, they may be trying to explain an intrusive thought to you. If you notice your child ruminating on a topic, they may be struggling with an intrusive thought.
Highly publicized suicides bring mental illness into the forefront. Some media publications are guilty of sensationalizing the deaths, hyper-focusing on gorey details, and publishing ignorant opinion pieces that muddy the waters. Many, however, make helpline details widely available and raise awareness and support for anyone who is resonating with these deaths. With 2 celebrity suicides occurring so closely together, it is pretty impossible to miss both types of reporting. Unfortunately, their suicides have led them to be role models in a new way – another reason why we want to prevent as many suicides as possible. An upside to the tragedy is the awareness of mental illness, but the opportunity is lost without empowering people to talk about their symptoms without fear of judgement and repercussion, and abundant education of the reality of what these illnesses look like and do. Openness, understanding, and awareness are the best way to take care of everyone – regardless of mental illness.
See Also: 13 Reasons..
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