This article is not only about trigger warnings, it also is one: we are going to address suicide. Please stop here if you find such discussions triggering.
People of my generation tend to scoff at the ubiquity of trigger warnings, content warnings and other emotional accommodations afforded in this day and age. Things like a “cry closet” or an “emotional support peacock” (both recent news items) are ripe for derision. But it may be that, even if some people take such safe spaces and trigger warnings too far, others may undervalue them. While I have seen trigger warnings in some truly bizarre places, where I hope they are unnecessary, I do believe that some trigger warnings have a real place. This is no more so than in the arena of self-harm and suicidal tendencies. This need is amplified when there is a celebrity suicide, and exponentially so when there is more than one such death.
The potential glamorizing of suicide was a big topic last year with the release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, whose main character was a teenage girl who had died by suicide. (The story was told largely in flashback, which is how it was able to feature a deceased protagonist.) According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Center for Health Statistics, the American Psychological Association and others, suicide is the second-largest cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. Major risk factors include, but are not limited to, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Additional factors, particularly in teens, include bullying, sexual abuse, disciplinary problems, and more. It’s easy to see how a show like 13 Reasons Why making its main character forever young, beautiful and tragic can be a dangerous trigger for some people. Does this not deserve an alert for people at risk, or their families? (Season two, recently released, does begin with such warnings.)
The same problem exists with celebrity suicides, of which there were two in the news this past week, designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Such events contain the potential for a “suicide contagion.” What this means is that those who are already at risk for suicide are more likely to act on that impulse when they hear about others taking their own lives. This is especially true if the deceased was popular or admired, as celebrities tend to be.
The reason for this phenomenon is not completely understood. In theory, celebrity suicides are particularly contagious because the celebrity is seen as a role model and it is easier for a person at risk to copy their behavior. Another reason, according to John Ackerman of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is that when “high-profile people, who are successful and who the world views as having a lot going for them, … die by suicide, it can generate feelings of hopelessness.”
The uptick in suicides following such celebrity deaths is well-documented. Recorded instances date back at least as far as “the Werther effect” in 1774, when people copied the death of the protagonist in Johann Goethe’s book, The Sorrows of Young Werther. It continues to the modern day. For example, following the 1962 death of Marilyn Monroe (ruled a “probable suicide”), the suicide rate rose 12%.
Suicide contagion is also a worldwide phenomenon. In Japan, it’s called “Yukiko Syndrome,” after pop singer Yukiko Okada, who died by suicide in 1986, leading to a large number of copycat deaths. A 2004 study in Hong Kong showed that those who were affected by a celebrity suicide were almost six times more likely to have a severe level of suicidal ideation (the forming of suicidal thoughts).
More recent research indicates that victims also tend to copy the celebrities’ causes of death. For example, following Robin Williams’ death in 2014, the suicide rate rose 10%. But there was not only an increase in suicides following Williams’ death, there was a particular increase in the manner of his death (which I choose not to share here for reasons that will soon be made apparent).
Spade and Bourdain might not have been the mega-stars that Monroe or Williams were but the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw an increase of 25% percent in suicide-related calls in the two days after Bourdain’s death. The Suicide Awareness Voices of Education also saw an increase of 25-30% in those seeking help.
Now that we’ve determined that this is a real phenomenon, what can we do about it? There are certain steps that responsible journalists should take when reporting on such stories. Thanks to social media, all of us are micro-journalists and we should likewise proceed responsibly when discussing this kind of incident on our various timelines and newsfeeds. Among the things we can do are:
- Not romanticize suicide;
- Not share specific details that might be imitable, including the method of death;
- Not use the word “suicide” in the headline;
- Not use the word “commit” in this context;
- Include suicide prevention contact information, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org, 800-273-TALK;
- If you or a loved one are at risk, take steps to avoid potentially-triggering exposures.
I have done my best to adhere to these guidelines in this article.
It should be noted that I am not a mental health professional and nothing in this article represents professional advice. This is all from one lay person to another, things we can do as lay people. But since untreated depression is present in a significant majority of suicides, if you or a loved one are suffering from such a condition, it is important to seek appropriate help. (This means a doctor or a therapist, not your rabbi or rebbetzin, unless he or she is professionally trained in this area.)
One may think that a “cry closet” on a college campus is a bit much – and I’m likely to agree with that sentiment – but that’s not to say that all accommodations fall into the same category. Some triggers are to be avoided, or at least mitigated as well as possible, as they represent a well-documented matter of life and death. No responsible person should hesitate to implement these small, easy guidelines in order to protect those at risk – and we may have no idea who they even are.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.