Suicide and Social Contagion

by Christopher White, CBC Director of Research and Education on November 23, 2015

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In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty chronicled suicide’s social contagion effects—and what this means for debates surrounding physician assisted suicide.

Dr. Kheriaty, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California Irvine and a board member of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, discussed two social phenomenas that provide insight here.

First, the Werther Effect, where “publicized cases of suicide can produce clusters of copycat cases, often disproportionately affecting young people, who frequently use the same method as the original case.” Interestingly enough, a major study published last month found that in states where physician assisted suicide is legal, overall suicide rates increase by over six percent.

By contrast, the Papageno effect “suggests that coverage of people with suicidal ideation who do not attempt suicide but instead find strategies that help them to cope with adversity is associated with decreased suicide rates.”

Two real life examples, as told by Kheriaty, chronicle this reality. Most of us are now familiar with the story of 29 year old Brittany Maynard, the California woman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor and moved to Oregon to utilize their physician assisted suicide laws. But there’s also another story to be told—that of Valentina Maureira who received the same diagnosis as Maynard and who pleaded with the government of Chile, her home country, to allow for physician assisted suicide. All of that changed when she met another young person with the same diagnosis, and together they decided to raise public awareness that there is hope even in the grimmest of conditions.

Which gets us back to the importance of all of this in our physician assisted suicide debate. Organizations like the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and others all have programs to encourage suicide prevention and to provide better mental health treatment to those with such tendencies. Allowing and advocating for physician assisted suicide runs afoul of these goals, regardless of the circumstances.

As Kheriaty concludes:

Debates about physician-assisted suicide raise broad questions about our societal attitudes toward suicide. Recent research findings on suicide rates press the question: What sort of society do we want to become? Suicide is already a public health crisis. Do we want to legalize a practice that will worsen this crisis?

Image by Daniel Lobo via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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