If someone commits suicide (or homicide) in an unusual or notable manner, does it prompt a copycat? For example, if someone at a university commits suicide by jumping off a building, is it likely to motivate others to try the same thing?
Similarly, does reporting a school shooting make other kids more likely to imitate it?
The issue is not so simple or clear cut. We have to ask whether it causes people to imitate the manner of the suicide (e.g., jumping from a building) or if it plant the idea of suicide in general into someone's head, that would not have otherwise done it.
Both questions have some data behind them. It is a fact that after the reporting of a suicide, the incidence of suicides of that type increases shortly thereafter. However, and with less data, it also appears to be true that the overall suicide rate does not increase. If this is true, then the reporting of suicide merely changes the way in which individuals with suicidal tendencies will attempt suicide, and has no impact on whether or not they will try suicide. And it may also affect the timing: while the overall suicide rate may not change in that year, it is unknown whether or not the suicides that do occur are clustered around the imitated suicide event.
Additionally, there are some patterns in the manner of suicide among different groups of people. For example, jumping off a building is a very uncommon method in the U.S., but it represents over half the suicides in Hong Kong. Self-immolation is common in southeast Asia relative to the rarity here in the U.S., where gunshot wounds dominate. Are they imitating each other, or is there some cultural effect? (Or, it could be even more straightforward than that: in Hong Kong, it is hypothesized that buildings are common because so many people live and work in high rises.)
The question has some other consequences as well. If copycat suicides are a real phenomenon, then a school may be allowed – or even obligated – to expel or suspend a student who attempts suicide, on the premise that it affects the safety of the rest of the students. It also speaks to the idea of risk: if a suicide is so unusual or powerful that it can influence others to do it – even if they were not thinking about it at all – then suicide itself becomes a risk factor. In essence, we would conceptualize it like a disease outbreak, with no obvious pathogen. The analogy would be a heart attack influencing a heart attack in another person. What would we do if this were true? Would we increase screening for at-risk patients or offer prophylactic treatment?
The problem is that suicide is an immensely complex behavior. A countless number of steps precede the attempt, and a change in any of those steps might stop the suicide. However, there are a number of commonalities in suicide that defy the behavioral explanation: why do so many individuals who commit suicide smoke cigarettes? Why do so few women – only 20% – kill themselves relative to the total?
The copycat phenomenon may ultimately rely on identification: it's not the method that might draw people to imitation, but rather some link between the original person who committed suicide and the copycat; a combination of demographics and circumstance that give rise to an imitation of behavior as well.
Published On: May 21, 2007