Suicide, Contagion, and the Media
“If it has ever been taken up as an option, however, the black knight has a tendency to remain in play.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison, “Night Falls Fast”
· Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for Americans aged 10 to 34
· The 2016 CDC report puts rates up 30% since 1999
· Rates are rising in almost every state in the U.S.
· 54% of suicides did not have a known mental health condition
· Rates for females aged 10–14 jumped 200% (1999–2014)
Recent localized epidemics:
· Teenagers in Palo Alto (2014)
· First Nation, Ontario (2016)
· Dairy farmers in New York state (now)
· NYC taxicab drivers (now: 5 suicides in 5 months)
SUICIDE IS CONTAGIOUS.
“Viral videos” should have taught us what a meme really is — the “ok” sign is a meme, shaking your head to indicate “no” is a meme, and killing yourself is a fucking meme. You learn it from other people, and it spreads the way any meme spreads.
Please be very careful how you talk to your friends and family about suicide. If you don’t know how, try using the AFSP’s media guidelines.
The media has been extremely irresponsible in regard to celebrity suicides. The unethical reporting on Robin Williams led to a 10% uptick in suicides (Columbia University). The impatient reporting on Kate Spade, using unconfirmed sources, led to her husband having to address it in his (heartbreaking) public letter.
Especially if you work in media, PLEASE BE COOL. You may not have a philosophical issue with suicide, but widows and widowers and father/motherless children do.
Even casual acquaintances might know that I wrote a novel about a (fictional) suicide epidemic.** But even close friends may not know that I have suffered from depression and, specifically, suicide ideation, for over 20 years. I do try to talk about it. It’s incredible how many people have thought about it. It is even more incredible how many people — even friends and family — will not take you seriously or will quickly change the subject. It is not in our culture to talk about it. Our culture will have to change before anything else will.
Medication helps a lot of people like me, but not all. And their effectiveness can change quickly. Talking to professionals is fucking scary, because you don’t know if they’re going to put you immediately “under observation.” They always ask the same question: “Do you have a plan?” And it’s hard to admit, but that’s actually a pretty good question.
I told people that I wanted to get people talking about suicide. That’s true. But I also wrote the book to get it out of me. I thought that exhausting the idea of suicide would get it to leave me alone, and it worked for a long time. But the black knight remains in play. It’s just like, I don’t wear that top anymore or eat at that restaurant anymore — it no longer scratches the itch it used to scratch. This is the problem with surviving — we change. (If we didn’t, everyone would still be married to their first high school girl/boyfriends.) And some changes are too hard or too fast to negotiate. For people like me, we’re often starting over and trying to find a new way to manage and move on. And one bad week can upset months of progress.
(Personally, I made a sort of permanent choice last year to help me deal, something that’s still private, and for me, it’s been working, along with a continued search for external help. There are still bad days. I chose a life that, hilariously, is almost too uncertain and stressful for me to really handle — but that’s the gig of living.)
People like me are all around you. We’re often funny and outgoing, and often self-medicating — we’re all about coping mechanisms. Some of us want help and can’t find it, some of us don’t want help, and some of us can’t admit we need help or wouldn’t know what to do with it. If you’re having these kinds of thoughts, try to talk with someone who would miss you. Because that really helps. (In person or on the phone — social media seems to be not so good for us.) Feeling needed and necessary is like having a job — you gotta show up for it. And the more times you have “uncomfortable” conversations, the less squirmy they become. And if you know someone like me, try to bring it up now and then so they don’t have to. We’re not all skittish. Fuck that 13 reasons why shit, I have 5 million reasons why, and your asking me about it is not going to push me over the edge. Some of us can joke about it — it depends on the person. And the day. Just hearing people talk about us like we’re not sick/broken/pathetic/aliens is really pretty helpful.
My heart goes out the friends and family of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. But they are now part of a statistic. This week, and always, we should be concerned about people we actually know. People who might not have the resources that rich and famous people do. People who see validation, redemption, or release in these high-profile, romanticized cases. People who may be susceptible to this meme, and engage in emulation as a reflex.
TBH, that novel I imagined 20 years ago is starting to look less like fiction. As a pessimist, being right is not my idea of a good time. As an existentialist, I prefer Albert Camus to Sartre: although Camus believed that life was meaningless and absurd, he took that as the REASON to have a good time. Please, let’s.
Let the sky be blue.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800–273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
*DISCLAIMER: The novel, Killing Williamsburg, is highly triggering for people with issues around suicide, substance abuse, sex, violence, gentrification, etc. It is pitch-black comedy and is NOT recommended for those struggling with suicide ideation or loss.
[This piece originally appeared as a “friends-only” post on the author’s social media, following the week of the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Shared here after private prompting from sufferers of depression, friends and family of depression sufferers, and suicide loss survivors.]