Last week, it was reported that Sydney Aiello, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that took 17 people’s lives in February 2018, killed herself at the age of 19. A few days after her passing, news surfaced that another Parkland survivor, a high school sophomore whose name has not been released by authorities, had also died by suicide.
The news hit the Parkland, Florida, community hard, with members of the community holding emergency meetings with concerned parents and school administrators placing robocalls encouraging parents to speak openly with their children about suicide. These concerns ramped up after it was reported that Jeremy Richman, the father of 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim Avielle Richman and an ardent advocate for gun control, died by suicide on Monday.
The deaths have prompted impassioned conversations about not just the long-term impact of gun-related violence and trauma on survivors and victims’ loved ones, but also concerns about suicide contagion, or the idea that media coverage of people taking their own lives would inspire others to do so. But suicide prevention experts like Dr. April Foreman, a psychologist and a board member at the American Association of Suicidology, cautions people from jumping to such conclusions.
“One of the things I always want to be clear about is we have relatively little science about suicide. We have even less research on suicide clusters and contagion,” Foreman tells Rolling Stone. “There’s just a lot we don’t know about this issue.”
Suicide contagion, or the so-called “Werther effect,” is a legitimate phenomenon that has been linked to irresponsible media coverage of people dying by suicide, such as lurid headlines elaborating on the cause of death or language that glamorizes the act, says Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center who heads a research unit focusing on suicide prevention. For someone who is at risk, reading such stories or seeing them on television “can influence someone and have them start ruminating more about suicide,” she told Rolling Stone. (More information on responsibly discussing suicide can be found at Reporting on Suicide, a list of guidelines developed by suicide prevention experts, public health researchers, and members of the media based on more than 50 studies on suicide prevention.)
Foreman wants to make one thing clear: the vast majority of people who have experienced trauma will not develop suicidal thoughts.
But she is also careful to note that hysteria-fueled reports of “clusters,” or identifying a single reason or cause behind someone taking their own life, do people at risk a disservice. “Suicide contagion is never the whole story,” she says. “There has to be other risks that have occurred,” such as a history of or a predisposition to depression.
There is some evidence to suggest that exposure to gun violence is correlated with increased risk of developing mental health issues, like depression and post-traumatic disorder (PTSD). One 2017 meta-analysis of data collected after 15 school shootings found that mass shooting survivors and members of communities that have been touched by gun violence were more at risk of experiencing “a variety of adverse psychological outcomes,” such as PTSD and acute stress disorder; and this risk seems to increase with closer proximity to a tragedy.
But Foreman wants to make one thing perfectly clear: the vast majority of people who have experienced trauma will not develop suicidal thoughts and feelings, and an even smaller percentage will go on to take their own lives. “We don’t want to spread narratives that, if you have survivor’s guilt or have experienced trauma, of course you’ll [take your own life]…the truth is that of people who experience a traumatic event, only a portion will experience PTSD,” Foreman says, estimating that the number hovers between one in four or one in five. “And only a portion of those with PTSD will have suicidal thoughts and feelings.”
It’s important to note that these thoughts and feelings are not uncommon, regardless of whether you have survived a traumatic event or not: one study suggests that an estimated 8.3 million American adults have struggled with suicidal thoughts and feelings in the past year. Yet Foreman stresses that of those struggling with suicidal thoughts, the vast majority — millions and millions of people — “will live and they will recover and they will not die by suicide.”
“Post-traumatic stress is real,” she says. “But people do recover. People live with it and manage it like any other chronic health condition.”
In the wake of the deaths of members of the Parkland and Sandy Hook communities, Foreman says that the conversation should turn not to panic or fear, but to the need for “better informed care” for survivors of trauma and gun violence. She points to the need for “postventions,” a public health initiative that involves trained suicide prevention experts reaching out to members of the community and providing mental health resources and support. Although limited standardized research has been done on postventions, some studies have found they can reduce risk for members of the community.
“Post-traumatic stress is real,” Forman says. “But people do recover.”
“You hold a public meeting, you let people talk about how they were impacted, you let people plan what their wellness is gonna be and how they’re gonna take care of it,” says Foreman. “These are just some of the things you can do to constrain negative impact and promote healing.”
For parents and loved ones of those who may be at increased risk, the emphasis should be on transparency and increased communication about suicidal thoughts and behaviors and managing risk — not less. “It’s a very hard question to ask somebody: ‘Are you in so much pain that you’re thinking about killing yourself?,'” says Gould. “But we all need to practice that and get help knowing how to ask that.”
Above all else, it is crucial to promote the message to survivors of trauma and those struggling with feelings of guilt that “we can still always honor and love the victims in these beyond horrible mass shootings, and in a way the best way to honor them is to make our lives the best they can be,” Gould says. “Being in immense pain doesn’t mean they’ll always be in immense pain.”
In fact, numerous studies have shown that media coverage of suicide that focuses on recovery and healing has been proven to reduce risk among vulnerable members of a community — a phenomenon Gould refers to as the “Papageno effect,” named after the protagonist of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Stories like that of Zach Cartaya, a Columbine survivor who founded the Rebels Project to provide mental health resources and support for those affected by mass violence, are an excellent example.
The focus shouldn’t be solely on the devastation wrought by gun violence on individual lives, but also “on the many, many stories of people who have struggled with trauma and suicidal feelings and recovered,” says Gould. “Stories need to be about hope and survival and coping and the recognition that pain is real, but it can be transient and we should not feel guilty when we go on and enjoy our lives. It is the best way to honor someone and help other people.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741.