Sometimes what's contagious is obvious. Like the flu. Or as we heard in last week's news, the Ebola virus. Other times what's contagious is less obvious. Like this week's news of Robin Williams' death.
For decades, suicidologists and public health officials have warned of "suicide contagion," meaning the process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one person increases others' likelihood to attempt suicide. The effect of suicide contagion seems to be strongest among adolescents, particularly young adolescents. In fact, one study indicates that 12- to 13-year-olds who have been exposed to suicide are five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who haven't.
Rewind the clock a few years (or decades) and imagine being a teenager yourself, watching the media coverage celebrating the remarkable talents and impact of Robin Williams. Not only does suicide symbolize an end to a young person's pain, it can also represent a path to celebrity and affirmation.
Even this week, members of the media have openly shared their hesitation in repeatedly referring to Williams' death as a "suicide," recognizing that doing so might inspire copycats. But even if the actual word isn't used, it's hard to forget the tragic circumstances of Williams' death.
As you interact with a teenager or young adult this week, pay attention for common warning signs, such as social isolation, increased use of alcohol or drugs, feelings of depression or hopelessness, or any changes in behavior.
Equally important as observing teenagers this week is engaging in conversation with them. Ask them what they think of Robin Williams' life, work, and death. Share that suicide is one of the most common forms of death for young people, and ask them if they know anyone who has ever talked about taking their own life. If at any point in the conversation, you become worried about their own outlook, ask them if they have ever contemplated suicide. If those thoughts have been recent, let them know that you are there for them, don't leave them alone, notify their parents, and contact professional help.
We are all aware of one grievous suicidal death this week. Let's do our collective best to keep it at that.
To learn more about how to prevent suicide, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.