Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Is Suicide Contagious?

In the early ‘60s, teenagers of the Micronesian islands lived normal lives. They went to school, worried about fitting in, and hung out with friends. But as the years went on, something terrible happened.

Teen suicide rates went through the roof.

By the 1980s, there were more teen suicides in Micronesia per capita than anywhere else in the world. On the Chuuk Islands, males aged between 15 and 25 killed themselves in droves: 250 per 100,000.

Twenty times the youth rate in the United States.

What was responsible for the early deaths? Almost always the smallest of events.

Father Fran Hezel, a priest living in Chuuk, said, “Young people could flunk out of school, lose their job, and even be thrown into jail without considering suicide. But if an island boy’s relationship with his family was threatened, watch out…”

Island youths committed suicide because their mother refused to give them a dollar, because of a squabble they had with their brother, or because a sibling took their flashlight without asking.

Incidents you and I see as trivial were enough to push teens over the edge. 

The earliest wave of suicides had a clear pattern: everyone was male and aged between 16 and 26 years old; intoxicated; and had a falling out with a partner, family member or friend just before their death.

Curiously, none of the young adults showed signs of mental disorders or depression. The suicides seemed like choices made in the spur of the moment.

The signs of hopelessness and despair we naturally connect to self-destruction were missing.

That said, family and community play a far greater role in Micronesia than in the west. A tear in the fabric of the family is easily reason enough to take your own life.

But does a mother’s refusal to lend her son a dollar seem like a rupture in the family bonds to the child?

The link between the domestic tiff and the end of a young man’s life seems so far fetched. And yet it was undoubtedly the cause.

Or was it?

Although not the rule, many teenagers commit suicide as an act of aggression. “I’ll get back at you by destroying myself!”

Many of the Micronesian suicide notes confirm this. Like the next note from a boy named Sima:

“Mama you won’t have any more frustration or trouble from your boy. Much love from Sima.”

Suicide is obviously a very scary and monumental form of retribution. At least to you and I, but perhaps not to the boys of Micronesia.

Sociologist David Philips has extensively studied suicide rates and made an unsettling discovery: suicides lead to suicides.

Any time a suicide makes frontpage news, like the death of Marilyn Monroe in ‘62, suicides rise. Not because we’re suddenly convinced of its merit, but because we’re social creatures who unconsciously imitate.

Clearly you won’t end your life if all is well. 

But when dozens of people around you commit suicide, like in Micronesia, you become desensitised to the lethal act. Suicide becomes familiar and if seen enough, normal.

Combine normalisation with our urge to imitate and you’ve got a recipe for self-destruction. And the beginnings of a suicide epidemic.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach