The “Contagion” of Suicidal Ideation and How to Interrupt These Thoughts

On October 18th, at the Young Adult Transition Association (YATA) conference, I heard a lecture by an author, Lee Daniel Kravetz, about his book, Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.  He studied “contagion” of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and wrote a book about it. His idea and motivation for writing the book began when his community experienced an unusually large number of suicides in Palo Alto, California in the public high school.

When Kravetz looked into social contagion, the negative emotions people tend to “catch” are stress, burnout, greed, ambition, fear, and hysteria.  As a result of experiencing over 10 suicides, many of which were very public as students stepped on the train tracks, Kravetz began to share his research and focus on suicide prevention in this very affluent, academically driven community with many gifted students.  One of the high school teachers created a positive psychology class. He also helped students to understand that talking about troubling issues, such as suicide ideation and/or failure, helped students become more aware of their own emotions. Talking about suicide and death was very important, as it created emotional safety and a willingness to reach out to others.  The local high school created a “wall of failure” and encouraged students to post their college rejection letters. One of Kravetz’s questions which summarized the talk was: “How do we talk about something we’re not supposed to talk about?”

To help students reflect emotions and thoughts is a way to create emotional connection and atonement.  Our job, as educators, therapists, and parents is to be an “interrupter” of suicide by being observant and more to willing confront behaviors associated with isolation, depression or symptoms of withdrawal.  One interesting fact was that there is a suicide “season”: it is at the beginning of school and also before, during, and after final exams. We need to help students and parents learn to talk openly about negative emotions and be able to create opportunities for resilience, courage, and happiness.  We can help create compassion, love and awareness by giving people permission to talk openly and share real emotions so that the “contagion” of suicide can be arrested.