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Suicide Contagion, "Impulsive" Suicides, and "Excess" Suicides

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The work of sociologist D. P. Philips, and researchers after him, suggest that the suicide rate rises after the media widely publicize a suicide. (In addition, in a related phenomenon, the rate of automobile “accidents” and airplane “accidents” rise in the wake of a highly-publicized suicide, as well.) This phenomenon is known as suicide contagion, or the Werther Effect. Philips noted that the rate of suicide after a well-publicized suicide rises substantially for a few days to a week after the suicide, then falls back to normal levels – though not below the baseline level. This is taken as evidence that the suicides that follow a well-publicized suicide are “excess” suicides, needless suicides that could have been prevented and, by implication, should not have happened. (For an excellent popular description of this line of thinking, see chapter four of Robert B. Cialdini’s book Influence: They Psychology of Persuasion, the chapter on “social proof.”)

This idea of “excess suicides” is related to a widely-accepted notion in psychology circles, that of “impulsive suicide.” Impulsive suicide, the story goes, occurs when someone not fully committed to suicide by rational investigation commits suicide on an impulse, perhaps in response to a difficult life event (or to a news story about a suicide). The idea that some suicides are “impulsive” and, therefore, should be prevented, is rarely challenged.

It is my view that most people, non-suicidal themselves, have very little idea of the thought processes of a suicide. I explored in an earlier post one cognitive bias that might contribute to this. Based on this, I wish to explore the implicit model of the “good” suicide, that is, one accepted to be inevitable and non-preventable, as distinct from the “bad” suicide, one that is impulsive, ill-considered, and preventable. It is my belief that many suicides that appear to be impulsive and preventable (in response to life stresses, for instance) are actually well-considered suicides where the suicide needed an extra push to overcome improperly-placed practical barriers to suicide.

The idea of “excess suicides” or “impulsive suicides” implies, ipso facto, that some suicides are inevitable, and even well-considered and rational. (Note that this is farther than most people espousing an anti-suicide viewpoint are willing to go, at least explicitly.) Some suicides, on the other hand, are poorly-considered products of impulse, irrational, and by their nature preventable. A certain rate of suicide is inevitable, the argument goes, but some suicides – the “excess” suicides, the “impulsive” suicides – can be prevented, and preventing them is good, an end we should actively pursue.

This model presumes that the current set of barrier in place to prevent suicide – barriers for accessing prescriptions drugs or guns, or lack of information and education about how to successfully commit suicide – are set at an ethically ideal level. It ignores the possibility that it might be ethically superior to remove those barriers and raise the suicide rate to the natural rate – that is, raise the suicide rate so that it achieves parity with the percentage of people who genuinely want to die. Meanwhile, people who can’t bear, under normal circumstances, to overcome the barriers to suicide (set somewhat arbitrarily) – people who won’t or can’t shoot themselves in the head, slit their throats, or suffer the pain of poisoning with inferior poisons – genuinely want to die, and can’t. They live with their decision, but also live with feeling of ambivalence regarding their choice, since they can’t bring themselves to die in ways available to them. I would denote these people “would-be suicides.”

Would-be suicides, however, often wait in hope of a personal stress to push them over the edge and help them suffer the pain of overcoming the barriers arbitrarily placed in their way. A would-be suicide might wait for years for a personal tragedy to push him over the edge and give him the courage – the “push” – to slash his throat or jump from heights. A news report of a famous suicide might function in the same way as a personal tragedy or stress – pushing the well-considered but practically inhibited suicide toward a much-desired death.

We must recognize, above all, that many in our number deeply and genuinely desire death. The numbers of the “excess suicides” and “impulsive suicides” give voice to the number who desire death, but cannot, under normal conditions, achieve it.