How we discuss suicide can affect its spread, healthcare provider says

Wake County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The suicide rate is climbing across the country.

In North Carolina, suicides increased by nearly 13 percent from 1999 to 2016.

Mental health experts believe the media’s coverage of high profile suicides may play a role in that.

When we have the flu, we all know to cover our cough. We know to stay home so we don’t spread the sickness to others.

“Most people don’t think of suicide as being the kind of public health issue that the flu is,” said Vaughn Crawford, director of system engagement at Alliance Behavioral Healthcare.

Some mental health professionals like Crawford say suicide can be just as contagious as the common cold.

“Suicide contagion is when the way in which we talk about and address suicide either helps or hurts the spread of suicide,” Crawford said.

On June 5, fashion designer Kate Spade committed suicide.

Just three days later, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took his own life.

“People who might already be struggling can look at celebrities who have money and fame and things in theory that we all want and if they are not happy and they don’t have hope even with all of those things then sort of your regular everyday person can go, ‘Oh well then why am I here?’” said Crawford.

A study found there was a nearly 10 percent increase in suicides in the U.S. in the months following comedian Robin Williams’ suicide, but talking about suicide is not always a bad thing.

In fact, media coverage of suicide can also inspire people to seek help.

The North Carolina suicide prevention lifeline says the day after spade’s death they received 333 calls.

On the day after Bourdain’s death, they received 467 calls.

On a typical day they get about 255. 

“One of the things that is really critical is making sure that it’s not sensationalized,” Vaughn said. “We don’t want to talk about the means by which somebody did it. We don’t want to guess about motives.”

CBS 17’s Kelly Kennedy experienced the power of suicide contagion firsthand.

Her best friend Stefanie Gute made a joke about Kate Spade’s death.

Three weeks later, Gute took her own life.

Surprisingly, Crawford says this is not uncommon.

“People often test out a conversation with their friends or their peers or their loved ones about suicide almost as a little bit of a cry for attention,” said Crawford.

Crawford has been touched by suicide, too.

Before she was born, her grandfather took his own life.

It’s the reason she became an advocate for suicide prevention.

“This necklace was actually given to my grandmother by my grandfather and she passed it along to me and it is definitely something that when I am doing a lot of advocacy around suicide and suicide contagion it’s something that I wear as a reminder,” Crawford said.

In all of Crawford’s years researching suicide and interviewing survivors, there’s one thing in particular that really resonated with her.

“Every single person who has survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge has expressed immediate regret as soon as they started to fall,” said Crawford. “So we are pretty sure that the vast majority of people who follow through and die by suicide, that’s not the way they wanted their lives to end.”

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression, tell someone.

You can call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can even just pick up your phone and send them a text.

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