What Is Suicide Contagion? (And How to Prevent It)

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Information in this article may be triggering to some. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Suicide is not an infectious disease, yet scholarly evidence suggests the phenomenon of suicide contagion, in which exposure to a suicide or suicide attempt increases the risk of suicidal behavior, is very real.

Suicide Contagion

A phenomenon where, after one person commits suicide, others may be more likely to also die by suicide.

Suicide contagion can happen in response to the suicide of a celebrity, a family member, or a peer, and often coincides with media reports about the suicide. Suicide contagion is most likely to happen among adolescents and young adults.

This article defines suicide contagion, details the history of the phenomenon, and explores what research says about why suicide contagion occurs. It also includes a discussion of how the media, parents, and others can minimize the risk of suicide contagion.

What Is Suicide Contagion?

When one person commits suicide, it can serve as an example to those who are already at risk for suicidal behavior to take action. Referred to as suicide contagion, this can result in an increase in subsequent suicides, often called "copycat suicides."

Suicide contagion can be limited to the local community or spread more widely, but in both cases, it can lead to spikes in suicides called suicide clusters.

Types of Suicide Clusters

There are two kinds of suicide clusters:

  • Point clusters are clusters of suicides that are limited in time and space to a community where people have been directly exposed to the suicide of a friend, peer, or family member.
  • Mass clusters are clusters of suicides that are limited in time but not space. Mass clusters tend to happen in response to indirect exposure to media reports about a celebrity suicide or the suicide of a character in a fictional movie or TV show.

History of Suicide Contagion

The belief that media coverage of a suicide could lead to suicide contagion goes back hundreds of years. One of the earliest known examples happened in response to the 1774 publication of the novel The Sorrows of Young Man Werther by Goethe, in which the main character dies by suicide after being rejected by the woman he loves. Copycat suicides in several European countries led to the book being banned in various places.

When sociologist David Phillips published the first scientific study on suicide contagion in 1974, he dubbed the phenomenon the “Werther Effect.” Since then, the scholarly literature has consistently shown local, celebrity, and fictional depictions of suicide tend to precede an increase in copycat suicides.

Evidence of Suicide Contagion

Research shows that there tends to be an increase in suicides in the general population following the suicide of a celebrity.

Following Celebrity Suicides

The largest example of suicide contagion came in response to the suicide of movie icon Marilyn Monroe. The suicide rate increased 12% in August 1962, the month of her death. Similarly in the five months following the August 2014 suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams, suicides increased 9.85%.

Following Media Portrayals of Suicide

Although the scientific evidence shows a stronger link between suicide contagion and news reports about suicide than fictional depictions of suicide, fiction has still been shown to have an impact.

For example, one study found that in the months following the premiere of the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which centers on the suicide of a 17-year-old girl, there was a 28.9% increase in the suicide rate of 10- to 17-year-olds, an increase that especially impacted boys in this age group.

Following the Suicide of a Loved One

Meanwhile, a 2015 study found that adolescents who are aware of a friend’s suicide attempt are at twice the risk of attempting suicide within the following year, the risk becomes even greater if the friend actually died by suicide.

These findings all point to the various ways a single suicide can lead to suicide contagion.

Why Does Suicide Contagion Occur?

While scholarly research indicates that the phenomenon of suicide contagion is real, researchers still don't know exactly why it occurs. However, there are several potential explanations.

Social Learning and Homophily

Both social learning and homophily has been used to explain suicide contagion that happens in a local community.

  • Social learning suggests that people serve as models for one another, leading individuals to observe and imitate one another’s behavior. As a result, when someone within a community dies by suicide, their actions may become a model for their peers who may now view suicide as an option that would enable them to escape whatever hardships they’re facing.
  • Homophily suggests that similar people tend to associate with each other.This scenario suggests that people who are prone to suicide may become friends. As a result, increased suicide rates among a group of friends following one member's death could be because all of the individuals in the group were already equally at risk for committing suicide.

Research indicates that social learning is more likely to be responsible for suicide contagion than homophily. One study found that adolescents’ risk of attempting suicide increased if they knew about a friend’s suicide attempt. If, however, the adolescent was unaware of the attempt their suicide risk wasn’t significantly impacted.

This suggests that exposure to suicide plays an important role in suicide contagion.

Social Learning Can Lead to 'Copycat' Suicides

Social learning appears to play a role in copycat suicides following reports about the suicide of a celebrity or the suicide of a fictional character as well.

In both cases, studies have shown that not only do suicides increase in the wake of these events, but that those who attempt suicide often admit to being exposed to the media coverage of the original suicide and often use the same methods as those of the individual covered in the news reports or depicted in the fictional account.

More Media Coverage Increases Suicide Rate

Suicide contagion that results from media reports about suicide is proportional to the frequency and prominence of these reports, with repetitive, more frequent, and more prominently placed reports leading to a greater number of copycat suicides.

The attitude the media takes to their coverage of suicide can also make a difference, with more dramatic headlines, more acceptance toward suicide in general, and more positive attitudes toward the individual who died are more likely to lead to more suicidal behavior.

While these observations don’t provide a definitive reason for suicide contagion, their association with the phenomenon has implications for preventing copycat suicides.

How to Prevent Suicide Contagion

Although suicide contagion isn’t well-understood, what is known has helped scholars and healthcare professionals develop guidelines for preventing it.

Guidelines for the Media

Suicide contagion’s association with media reports of suicide has led several organizations to put together guidelines for media reports of suicide.

Some of these guidelines include:

  • Keep reports of suicide factual and concise
  • Don’t oversimplify the reasons for the suicide by pointing to recent negative life events or stressors
  • Don’t describe the method the individual used to commit suicide
  • Don’t glamorize the individual or suggest that the suicide helped them achieve their goals
  • Provide information about suicide prevention hotlines and other avenues for help for those contemplating suicide

While these guidelines are voluntary, there is some evidence they can help. For example, when Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, committed suicide in 1994, news reports in Seattle, where he lived and his career started, emphasized mental health treatment and suicide prevention, as well as the pain his loss caused his family. In the months after Cobain’s death, suicides decreased in the Seattle area while calls to suicide prevention hotlines increased.

There aren’t yet guidelines for fictional depictions of suicide, but scholars suggest to those creating fictional accounts should use similar strategies as those outlined in the guidelines for media reports. These include refraining from showing the actual suicide and including suicide prevention hotline information in each episode.

For Parents, Teachers, and Other Community Members

When children and adolescents are exposed to suicide, parents and other caregivers can help minimize the risk of suicide contagion in a number of ways.

Talking with children about death is important. While parents shouldn’t emphasize the method of suicide, they also shouldn’t attempt to keep what happened a secret or try to avoid conversations about it.

Instead, parents and other caregivers should check in regularly with their children and leave the doors open for conversations that enable the child to express their feelings about what happened and suicide in general.

In addition, parents should ask if their child is having suicidal thoughts, which lets the child know they can talk with their caregiver about these uncomfortable feelings.

In addition, schools and other places where children and adolescents gather can offer suicide prevention programs that provide training on how to respond when a friend is experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Finally, if a child or adolescent expresses great distress or admits to feeling suicidal, parents should take them to a mental health professional, or if there’s an immediate risk of self-harm, should bring them to an emergency room or call 911.

A Word From Verywell

Discussion around suicide is still stigmatized, however, these conversations are necessary so that people feel less shame and guilt if they express that they're having suicidal thoughts. These thoughts are not uncommon, but you are not alone and help is available to you. You deserve to feel loved, supported, and safe.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.