Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is suicide contagious? Wednesday, July 21, 2010

“Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” --Clueless schoolteacher Pauline Fleming, “Heathers”

In the 1989 cult hit movie “Heathers,” a group of popular girls runs into a snag when they disguise the murder of a classmate as a suicide – only to discover that the girl they killed becomes even more popular after her death.

Like authors who only become famous after they die, they decide, teenagers become ultra-cool if they kill themselves. Suicide becomes the cool topic of discussion, and faux rock band Big Fun performs the song, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It).” Of course, it doesn’t occur to the characters of this dark comedy that by committing suicide, they won’t be around to enjoy their newfound popularity.

I don’t think anyone commits suicide to be “cool,” but it’s true that, at least among young people, suicide seems to be contagious. School counselors are familiar with “suicide clusters,” which may or may not involve actual pacts, but involve young people who knew each other. When a suicide of a youth hits the press, it’s not uncommon for other youths to attempt, especially if the method is mentioned.

And now with social networking, the news of a suicide has a limitless reach. “Sensationalizing suicide, whether done by the media or on a Facebook page, can offer other troubled individuals what seems like a solution to their own problems,” says AOL writer David Knowles.

When I started my SAS group in April, I didn’t know what to expect. I needed to share my experience with people who understood. I had no idea that so many young girls would join, or that some of them would seek me out as a special friend to confide in.

Now, having the SAS group gives me a special responsibility. Regretfully, I can’t prevent a suicide, even if I try my best to help. But if one occurs, I’ll need to handle it in a sensitive and cautious way.

I hope it never happens. But should someone in “my” group take his or her life, I won’t be creating a special Facebook memorial page for them. I won’t be the main support for friends that are grieving – they’ll have to go to their own families, and hopefully professionals, for that. I won’t keep “secrets” about plans or pacts – I’ll seek out other adults for help.

“Heathers” was wickedly funny, but “IRL,” suicide isn’t cool. And I won’t do anything to make it look that way.

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