How Media Organizations Can Help Mitigate Suicide Contagion

23 hours ago
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The father of a Sandy Hook shooting victim was found dead this morning in Newtown, Conn., in an apparent suicide.

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Jeremy Richman was 49 years old. He and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, created The Avielle Foundation. They named it after their daughter who died at Sandy Hook.

CORNISH: In 2013, Richman told NPR they started the foundation to research the possible roots of violent behavior in the brain.

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JEREMY RICHMAN: Everywhere that we went in the beginning, people were all like, I can't imagine what you're going through; I can't imagine. But they are imagining it. That's the terror that they're feeling when they say those words. And we need to imagine it 'cause otherwise we can't drive change, innovation, ideas.

CORNISH: This news comes shortly after two students who survived last year's shooting in Parkland, Fla., also died - one by suicide, one apparently by suicide. Now, two apparent suicides in about a week, one confirmed, in two communities affected by school shootings may sound like more than just a coincidence. And so to talk about this, we turn to NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee. She covers mental health. And I asked her whether this qualifies as a suicide contagion.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Experts I spoke with said we will probably never know. But one expert said that the second in Parkland was quite likely influenced by the first one which happened last week because teens and young people in particular are vulnerable to that contagion effect.

CORNISH: So is this real as a phenomenon?

CHATTERJEE: Yes. Studies have shown that knowing or hearing about or reading about someone else's suicide - it could be someone in your life, someone you don't know - it can increase your own risk of suicide especially if you're already feeling depressed, down and already thinking about death. But it's important to remember that suicide is not caused by one thing. It's usually a mix of factors, sort of that perfect storm that pushes somebody to act on their suicidal thinking.

CORNISH: At the same time, we in the media - when we cover these situations, are we contributing to the problem?

CHATTERJEE: The media's coverage of suicide plays a role, but it's not so much just covering it but how we talk about suicide. So for example, if we report on a death by suicide by talking about the means that they used, that plays a role or if we talk about suicide as inevitable, that somebody who has suicidal thoughts there's no way to stop them because suicide is preventable.

CORNISH: So it's important to talk about the issue. It's important to talk about it being preventable. How?

CHATTERJEE: You can get help. There's help out there for people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. For example, there's a national suicide prevention line - 1-800-273-TALK. There's a number people can text by texting the word talk to the number 741-741. And it's not just someone who's feeling suicidal who can access these help lines. If I know somebody that I'm worried about who may be suicidal, I can call these help lines for help. So there's many ways to keep somebody with suicidal thoughts from acting on them.

CORNISH: I want to come back to the news of the day then. What about for people in communities like Parkland, like Newtown or other places that have experienced mass shootings? What can people be doing?

CHATTERJEE: So communities that have experienced mass shootings are going to be dealing with trauma and grief and things like PTSD for a long time. And so what people in these communities can do is really look out for those who were perhaps survivors of these shootings, who have relatives who died in these shootings and step in and check in on them. The thing that experts tell me is it's important to ask somebody who is struggling, hey, are you OK? Are you considering harming yourself - because that's the question that often people hesitate to ask, but that can open up a conversation and lead someone in need getting help.

CORNISH: That's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you so much for your reporting.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.