COPYCAT KILLERS: It’s one of those stories that was chasing me, not the other way around. Two weeks ago, while making my way from the red peppers to the sweet Italian sausages at Trader Joe’s, no less than three people stopped me to ask what I knew about the spate of recent teen suicides. A little. But not nearly as much as I should have. With two of the deaths coming within just one week of each other, there was lots of talk. And even more questions. Did the victims know each other? Were they from the same neighborhood? Did they have other things in common? Did they kill themselves the same way? And if you looked back a few months further, were there even more? Was it a spate? Or perhaps the dread C word-a cluster? The questions insinuated all kinds of significant detail. Less elusive were the not-so-implicit accusations: Why wasn’t a bigger stink being raised? Why didn’t people care?
As the Wall Street Journal just reported, more people are now taking the one-way ticket to nowhere. Last year, 8.3 million people thought seriously about doing themselves in, 1.1 million attempted it, and roughly 35,000 actually succeeded. When you think that 40,000 Americans died in car crashes last year, 9,369 were shot to death (roughly half at their own hands), 100 choked to death on ballpoint pens, and none died during commercial airline travel, that’s a significant number. With “Black Friday”-the officially mandated first day of Christmas shopping-right around the corner, one might expect suicidal impulses to increase. Scientific studies reveal, however, Christmas is the one national holiday that actually suppresses the number of suicides.
Locally, the numbers are imprecise, but up. Why wouldn’t they be? The economy sucks, jobs are down, and foreclosures are up. But on State Street, $300 jeans and $700 purses don’t seem all that weird. In this environment, the only people who can hope to survive are either vampires or zombies, and they’re already dead. Some mornings, it’s just hard to get up. And for some people, that’s forever. But when I tried to pin down any of the specifics regarding recent accounts of teen suicide, I encountered a great blanket of silence. People who knew what was happening clammed up. One guy, generally fearless about everything, said he was too uncomfortable to even go off the record. I had an appointment with Santa Barbara High School Principal Mark Capritto, but when we talked, he referred me to the school district public information officer instead.
Suicide prevention specialists-who have been working overtime at local high schools and junior highs-insist that suicide is highly contagious and is spread by media accounts. Teens are especially susceptible, I was told, to media reports that could be construed to glorify melodramatic acts of self destruction. If I were to report who I thought was killing themselves and how I thought they were doing it, I was told I’d be inciting kids now on the precipice to take a flying leap. Did I want their splatter on my conscience? The equation galled me. Back in the ’50s, comic books were required to show that crime did not pay because to express any ambivalence on this score was to incite juvenile delinquency. Comic books that did not comply did not get distributed and were forced out of business. The fact is, it’s impossible to write anything that won’t incite some teen, somewhere, to do something crazy. Calabasas is currently in the throes of a crime wave in which bands of roving young teens beat up on redheads. It’s all part of “Kick a Ginger Day,” which was ignited by a Facebook campaign, which in turn had been inspired by a 2005 episode of the TV cartoon show, South Park. If some redhead now gets attacked in Santa Barbara, will that be my fault?
Buttressing claims about media-induced suicide contagion are scads of scientific studies. There are so many studies on the subject, it turns out, that full-time academics can devote their lives to doing studies on all the studies. I communicated with one such specialist, Steven Stack of Wayne State, who said that half the 400 or so studies concluded there’s a contagion effect and the other half concluded just the opposite. The best documented copycat effect, he said, takes place after celebrities kill themselves. It depends on the intensity and frequency of media coverage. When Marilyn Monroe checked out in 1962, he said, many people followed suit. But when George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the ’50s, shot himself, there was relatively little coverage and he went alone. There’s scientific dispute over the extent to which young people are more prone to copycat suicides; the experts agree; however, the older people are much more influenced by such news accounts. Closer to home, the month after USA Today wrote an article detailing the number of suicides off Cold Spring Bridge, there were four new suicides. That could be a coincidence, more a function of tough economic times and the generalized despair that that induces than media influence. But it’s the first time ever four people jumped off that bridge in one month.
The details matter and it’s not just morbid curiosity. Suicide provides a raw indication of how miserable we are as a community and what kind of mental health Band-Aids are available. The answers to who’s killing themselves, why, and how might shed serious light on a problem not best addressed in the dark. Are current services adequate? Should they be redeployed? Are they appropriate for the population at risk? Does it matter that the county’s 211 crisis referral hotline doesn’t accept calls from cell phone users? Or that there’s a mobile suicide prevention squad that targets teens that no one has ever heard of? (The number is 1-888-334-2777.) Or that the county spends half a million bucks a year on transportation costs alone taking our mentally ill to a facility in Ventura County that provides the sort of therapeutic attention one could obtain for far less at a Greyhound Bus terminal? Maybe there’s something worse than sensational voyeuristic news coverage.
Until I know the facts-or at least a fair approximation-I’m biding my time. I don’t have much choice. In the meantime, have a great thanksgiving. Don’t choke on the cranberries and keep your eyes on the road.