Can A Mental Health Crisis Be Contagious? Yes, Particularly This One

There’s been no doubt among school counselors for decades that certain trends in behavior seem to be “contagious” in schools – some good, and some bad. Unfortunately, science is proving that one of the very saddest life events in people of all ages is contagious among people who are close – suicide, or ending one’s own life by purposeful means. This is not exactly a new thought, but research carried out by a university in the United Kingdom found compelling evidence that not only is suicide contagious, there are other factors that can make it more likely to be contagious, according to the study that was published January 26 in the scientific journal BMJ Open, according to Refinery 29.

Face hiding in jumper eyes closed
[Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images]
The study was conducted on over 3,000 participants who had lost a loved one tragically and unexpectedly – some by suicide, others in accidents or illness. The study found that people who had experienced a loved one’s death by way of suicide had more thoughts of their own suicide, depressed mood, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, and overall, a 65 percent more likely chance they themselves would attempt suicide, as compared to the group of people who lost loved ones in accidents.

When beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, suicide hotline centers saw an unprecedented increase in calls from thousands of people who were contemplating suicide. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this happens, but one thing seems to be a factor that causes a higher chance of suicide being carried out: if the person’s loved one who committed suicide is being judged and stigmatized for their actions by others around them, the bereaved individual is more likely to take his or her own life.

This is a major concern because the more stigmatized something is, the less likely people are to seek help, leading to a higher chance the suicide will be attempted. Alexandra Pitman, PhD, explained that guilt can be an enormous trigger. As the lead author of the newest study, she not only discovered links but offers helpful advice to those who may be involved with a situation of suicide.

“People bereaved by suicide should not be made to feel in any way responsible, and should be treated with the same compassion as people bereaved by any other cause. We know that people can find it difficult to know what to say to someone who has recently been bereaved. However, saying something is often better than saying nothing, and simple gestures like offering practical help with day-to-day activities can mean a lot. For example, when a colleague bereaved by suicide returns to work after compassionate leave then it could be helpful to ask how they are and offer to help them with their workload. Employers should be aware of the significant impact that suicide bereavement has on people’s working lives and make adjustments to help their staff return to work.”

According to EurekAlert, the risk of suicide is not the only tremendous fallout from a relative or friend’s suicide. Major quality of life indicators, such as work and schooling, seem to take a hit as well – with affected individuals being 80 percent more likely to quit school, work, or both. This in turn can lead to more social isolation, more stigmatization, further feelings of self-blame and low self esteem, which can cause a vicious cycle that may further increase the risk of suicide. Prior studies do show that the more isolated a person feels, the more likely they are to consider suicide, so it’s important to keep people who have recently experienced any loss, but particularly suicide, feeling included and cared about. It could mean the difference between life and death.

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