group of people photoHave you ever heard of the term “suicide-contagion?” If not, you’re not alone.

Most people haven’t heard of the term suicide-contagion because it isn’t a concept we talk enough about. It is about time that we begin, as a society, to discuss the impact of suicide-contagion on pockets of our society such as school districts, neighborhoods, rural areas, jails or prisons, and within families. It is more common than we realize.

This article will briefly describe 4 ways to understand and conceptualize suicide contagion.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (2017), every single day there are about 121 suicides with 44, 193 suicides per year. For adolescents between the ages of 15 – 24, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death. In 2015, the suicide rate was about 12.5% for adolescents between ages 15 – 24. This age group is particularly vulnerable to suicidal ideation because of hormones and the limited development of higher order thinking and executive function in the frontal lobes.

Suicide contagion is a concept that describes an individual who observes another individual who has committed suicide and therefore begins to think seriously about taking his or her own life. The term “suicide contagion” was later coined, in 1974, by researcher David Phillips to describe the act of people within society committing suicide because of a highly publicized or “attention-grabbing” suicide. The term basically describes the glorification of suicide by individuals who lose their objectivity and ability to engage in separating logical and emotional reasoning.

Suicide-contagion is something that takes most people by surprise because there often isn’t any warning signs that another individual is considering suicide after having found out that someone they knew (or heard about) had committed suicide. It is a perplexing phenomenon that I discuss in my upcoming book on teen suicide (see “home” page for the cover of the book).

Research is limited when it comes to understanding and explaining suicide-contagion. We lack research to help us understand what triggers “copy-cat” suicides, what the vulnerabilities or risk factors are, and how to prevent it. In rural and remote areas, suicide-contagion becomes even more difficult to understand. For the purposes of this article, we can hypothesize that suicide-contagion is motivated by a few psychological, spiritual, and emotional thought patterns that lead to hopelessness and helplessness.

I have compiled 4 ways to understand and thought about suicide-contagion which includes but is not limited to:

  1. Existential questioning: This type of thinking may be exhibited as “why am I here?” “I want out of here.” “Life is so very hard and I don’t like it.” Although these thoughts are normal thoughts that many of us think at some point in our lives, those who are depressed constantly have these thoughts and are at risk for suicidal ideation. Existential questioning is a term I “created” and use with teens who are questioning life and the challenges of life. Too many questions with little answers can lead to depression and ultimately, suicidal thoughts.

  2. Nihilistic thinking: “The world is ending” thought pattern is typical of many of us, especially in difficult times. But people who are feeling suicidal and having suicidal ideations may engage more in this type of thinking that causes them to feel even more hopeless or helpless. Those with borderline personality traits may exhibit this type of thinking style as well. Teens exhibiting nihilistic thought patterns are almost always suicidal because they are depressed and uncertain of their future. Nothing can help someone who naturally conforms to this kind of thinking. They feel there is no reason to pursue help. There is no ultimate purpose.

  3. Negative self-talk: Self-talk can be defined as conversations we have with ourselves about an event occurring in our lives. Teens have a lot of negative self-talk because of their fragile and under-developed sense of self. When self-talk is negative, depressive thoughts are also likely to occur because the negative self-talk almost always involves talking about one’s capabilities or challenges. For example, you may have negative self-talk around your ability to make friends. You may say things to yourself such as: “you aren’t good enough to make and keep friends,” “you are so boring that no one will ever want to talk to you,” or “you’ll never find a girlfriend.” These thoughts are often pre-requisites for depression and suicidal ideation. When the news of someone else in the community killing themselves becomes public news, the desire to kill oneself most likely intensifies in someone who had already been thinking in this way.

  4. Questioning one’s faith or religion: Questioning faith is something I truly believe most of us go through at some point in our lives. Teens go through this a lot because they begin to ask the tough questions about life, existence, and meaning during adolescence. Many teens have engaged me in conversation about the reason for everything humans do on a daily basis. These questions call on me to rely on my faith and my existential/philosophical background to answer in a genuine fashion. I have also spoken to eldery women and men who struggle with their faith because of lost loved ones, lost friends, lost independence, lost meaning and purpose in life, and the reality that death is inevitable. I must add that questioning one’s faith alone doesn’t mean that a person is thinking about suicide. But I think it’s important for you to keep this in mind and to be ready for anyone who may share their questioning heart and soul with you.


So what do you think about this topic? Have you heard about this term before? Can you point out any events in today’s society that may be the result of “contagion?”


As always, I wish you well


To read more about this topic and its influence on suicide, you can learn more about my book here. Publication for this book will be 2/1/18 for Nook, 11/21/17 for Kindle, and 5/1/18 for paperbook where books are sold.