Infectious suicides

Update: Ben Goldacre points out that a) there is no suicide chain – the numbers are pretty much average, and the local journalist suggests it’s more to do with the death of a pretty young girl attracting media attention and b) some cretin is claiming it’s caused by mobile phone radiation.

The spate of teenage suicides around Bridgend is pretty horrific, and has the media speculating about cults. The police have found no links, though, and they suggest the blame lies with the media coverage. This topic comes up in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point:

One chapter, for example, deals with the very strange epidemic of teenage suicide in the South Pacific islands of Micronesia. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you’ll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can.

There’s obviously a difference in time periods and area size, but Gladwell had more subtle examples1:

In his study of motor fatalities, Phillips found a clear pattern. [Media stories] about suicides resulted in an increase in single-car crashes where the victim was the driver. Stories about suicide-murders resulted in an increase in multiple-car crashes in which the victims included both drivers and passengers. Stories about young people committing suicide resulted in more traffic fatalities involving young people. Stories about older people committing suicide resulted in more traffic fatalities involving older people.

What do you do about this? Media blackouts would seem to be an unreasonable request (although any hint of glamorisation should obviously be nuked from orbit), but still…

  1. my copy of the book has gone walkabout – this is reproduced from here []