The widely publicized joint suicide of four Bergenfield, N.J., youths in March seems to have had a strong impact on other teen-agers--there were at least 35 similar cases in the next few weeks, according to one researcher. This, in turn, has given increased prominence to the cluster theory--where suicides are related in some fashion--and the media's role in influencing such a situation.
"A news story about a suicide functions like the trigger on a gun," says David Phillips, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. Just as a gun needs a trigger, he explains, so does the potential suicide receive motivation from a news story.
"Probably what happens is there's a lot of unhappy people out there, and they're not sure how to respond to their unhappiness. When they see one method of responding--for example, suicide--they are more likely to copy that. It's just like any other form of advertising."
According to Phillips, the evidence is fairly conclusive that prominent news stories can cause a rise in suicides. When it comes to fictional depictions of suicide on TV movies, however, any influence is much less certain.
Although suicide clusters have been around at least since Goethe's 1774 novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" caused young adults throughout Europe to kill themselves, only in the past few years has the phenomenon received widespread attention--and it's still unclear how pervasive it is.
Loren Coleman, a researcher at the University of Southern Maine and editor of a newsletter on youth-suicide prevention, provides an extended look at the subject in Suicide Clusters (Faber & Faber, $11.95).
A cluster, he explains, occurs when "through word of mouth, you know someone in your school, community or section of state who is similar to you in age, race, economic status or some similar situation (and) who has committed suicide. You strongly identify with the victim. That puts you in the high-risk group. You feel you have no other choice but to do the same thing."
Although Coleman and other observers believe that a prominent cluster can in itself help provoke other, more distant suicides, it is on the local level that the effect is seen as especially significant. Between June 1986 and the March 11 tragedy, there were four "accident-suicides" among teen-agers in Bergenfield. One drowned in a pond, two were killed by trains, and the fourth fell from a cliff.
"The people who are very vulnerable, who may have tried to get assistance through some other cry for help, tend to get a hometown model of a completed suicide," says Coleman. "They see it as an option that previously wasn't there."
The March 11 suicides were extensively covered by the press--sometimes, Coleman says, with a heavy hand. "Some of the stuff going on with the New York TV stations was atrocious--going into people's homes and doing counseling around the table. When you have paraprofessionals doing group therapy (on TV), all it does is stir up group emotions that don't have an outlet."
In the four weeks after Bergenfield, Coleman says, "there were 35 imitations--and 14 of them were in pacts of two people each. That's extremely high. Pacts just don't occur that often."
Although it is still unclear how many of these teens would have killed themselves without any outside influence, Coleman and Phillips anticipate there will be a year-to-year rise in that age group when the final statistics are collected for that period.
This effect, called "contagion," has been explored in several full-scale studies. Phillips and another researcher looked at 12,585 teen suicides and 38 suicide news stories from 1973 to 1979. Their conclusion was that youth suicides increased significantly immediately after a publicized suicide, especially among girls.
A second study, this time of the effect of suicide-related television movies on New York-area teens, found that the suicide rate was significantly higher than normal immediately after the broadcast.
"The more publicity given to the story, the greater the increase in suicides just afterwards," says Phillips in summarizing his 14 years of research. "There is no increase just before the story, only just after.
"Another piece of evidence is that the drivers in single-car crashes that occur just after the story are unusually similar to the person described in the suicide story. If the suicide story is about an old guy, for instance, the driver is abnormally old. . . . There's a package of results that it's very difficult to find an alternative explanation for."
Effects on Elderly