Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Suicide and Social Learning

I found an interesting article on the Public Library of Science web site called The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide. (And thanks to the author for being willing to share his information under a Creative Commons license---this is how medical research should be!)

The author, Alex Mesoudi, used a computer model to study the effects of social learning and mass media influence on suicide clusters. He used a statistical method to see if suicides were clustered in time and space at an unexpectedly high frequency. This method is called an agent-based similiation, and is commonly used to model transmission of infectious disease. I'm not going to pretend to understand the statistics behind this! If you're curious you can read that part of the article.

He started by explaining the difference between point suicide clusters and mass clusters. Point clusters are suicides that are grouped together in time and space, while mass clusters are suicides that are grouped together in time, but are separated geographically. Suicide clusters have been thought to be due to social learning or mimicry, but it's also possible that they occur through homophiliy (the tendency for similar people to pool together in groups). Mass suicides are thought to be due to the influence of prestigious individuals (eg. celebrity suicide deaths) combined with coverage by the media. This leads to a one-to-many transmission model.

The computer model was run using three different assumptions: that suicides were totally random and unclustered, that clusters were due to social learning, and that clusters were due to homophily. He used different formulas to generate "suicides" under each model, and looked at the kind of clusters (spatiotemporal versus just temporal) that resulted.

What he found was that social learning caused spatiotemporal point clusters while homophilic clusters were more likely to be spacial rather than temporal. In order to understand this better, imagine the difference between teenage suicide epidemics versus correctional suicides. Teen suicides clusters happen among individuals who know each other, they happen in the same geographic area and within a short time frame of one another. These are the "social learning" clusters. Correctional suicides happen at a rate higher than in free society (in other words, they're geographically 'clustered' in a jail or prison), but are spread out over time. These are the homophilic suicides, in other words deaths by high risk people who happen to be grouped together. Based on this study, the correctional deaths are less likely to be due to social learning or mimicry.

Finally, the author studied the factors influencing mass suicide clusters: deaths that happen at the same time over a broad geographic area. These the kinds of suicides you see when a celebrity commits suicide. They are generally associated with a lot of media coverage. The computer model found that social learning played almost no role in these deaths.

It's a really complicated paper and I'm sure I didn't do it justice, but I thought it was pretty fascinating that someone could basically recreate the kind of suicide death patterns we see in the real world based on a theoretical mathematical framework. And I liked the term this author used for this kind of experiment: in silica. If in vivo experiments are done on animals or humans and in vitro experiments are done in test tubes or petri dishes, then "in silica" is a great term for computer model experiments.

And if none of this post made sense, hang on and I'll resurrect it in one of our podcasts.


Catherine said...

Actually that made a lot of sense and makes me want to read the study myself.

Sarebear said...

Made sense to me.

I wonder if anyone's studied the influence of popular fiction on suicide rates.


Not that many may have heard of this book, but I picked up some books before surgery, figuring I'd have extra time to read (not that I don't have alot of extra time anyway, being too depressed to do much of anything anyway).

I should not have picked up this one book. It's a suspense/thriller by a psychologist. Note to self, avoid fiction by psychologists. I am NOT saying I am like the main female character, nor that her diagnoses are mine, because they aren't, but there were aspects of her that I could identify with. She also is quite suicidal through alot of the book. The book is The Asylum Prophecies by Daniel Keyes; he's the same man who wrote Flowers for Algernon, many many years ago, which is part of why I picked up this book (of course, I knew this was in no way like that one, given the description, but I figured if he could write like THAT, it'd be an interesting read . . . . which it was, but . . . . too MUCH inside the head of the patient, which put ME too much inside the head of HER, and since she was suicidal, and raped, and kidnapped/tortured/stockholm syndrome and other stuff, it was just . . . I should have put it down, but I couldn't, I was too sucked in to it, psychologically.)

I think novels like this should almost come with a warning, like, if you are in therapy, don't read this. Although that might draw more in, lol. I think that this book could very well have caused some vulnerable people to have killed themselves; I know that since reading it myo wn levels of that kind of thinking have sky-rocketed, but then there's other stuff in our life that's going on, even before the mess yesterday about , well, a big HUGE um well BIG problem, that was creating alot of problems anyway.

Here's hoping the Seroquel kicks in soon. And yeah yadayada I'm under the care of a psychiatrist (er, see recent wierdness) and psychologist.

Have to decide within days whether to operate on the next knee NOW.

Anyway, mass media affecting suicidal thoughts, I know for a fact this book affected mine.

Sarebear said...

Er, on the other hand, I've read Dinah's book, Monday at The Charm, and it is a most excellent book, a great read, and did not cause any negative thoughts or feelings in the slightest, as I remember. Still have it, and plan on reading it again, when the mood strikes me.

I didn't mean my statement about, note to self, no fiction by psychologists, to imply that ALL fiction by psychologists OR any other mental health professional would necessarily be as much inside the head of a character such as the one portrayed in The Asylum Prophecies, with so much suicidal ideation going on. I just meant that I'd better screen things better, and for now that perhaps ought to mean no fiction by psychologists, lol. Especially in my current volatile state. That would seem quite prudent.

Just had to clear that up. Clear as mud? Lol.

moviedoc said...

This kind of modeling interests and instructs but does not really tell us what any suicide is "due to." And speaking of media, being moviedoc I collect movies that include, depict or even mention suicide. Must be getting close to 150 and will be adding more. The remarkable thing is how few of them feature suicide in the context of mental illness: suicide

Sarebear said...

Moviedoc, what about Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymoore (sp?) in it?

Not sure if he's intending, at the end, but it's basically the only way he can get back to her is by dying, so he just is left staring at the wall or out the window, not eating or anything anymore, and is found that way and is almost dead and dies as they try to help him, and he dies and is reunited with his long lost in time love, making it seem "romantic".

Which always put a bit of a sour note on the movie, for me. I mean, if he'd lived out his natural life, and THEN died and was reunited, that's another story.

Sorry if I spoiled the movie for anyone.

Not sure he intended things to go that way; he thought he could get back to her the way he first went back in time, but it didn't work, so he just despaired and lost all desire to function and eat etcetera . . . anyway, an addition to your list, I suppose.

Some of the movies on there made me go, wait, that movie has something about suicide in it? wait . . . and it made me think, oh wait a minute . . .

and your comment about how rarely it's depicted in relation to mental health issues gets me in the gut, is an important one, because I think that the media does not "get" how important it is to connect the dots, there, to put those things together.

One important example to me was when I was a teen, a surprisingly thoughtful episode of Growing Pains (the father's profession was psychologist or psychiatrist, I forget which, though it was often not a part of the plot), had a troubled girl teen over at the house, and she was leaving, and was out in the driveway, and being despairing, and the father happened to come home or Kirk Cameron's character had had just enough interaction with her when she'd been disturbingly upset to tell the dad that hey, she's dangerously something can you go talk to her . . . so he did, or he came across her out there, or something, and suicide was mentioned or strongly alluded to.

For the times, on tv, that was a daring episode, and for me at the time, it was exactly the kind of thing I needed to hear being discussed; that there WERE options, that there WERE types of adults to talk to, people to go to, and stuff, that things were NOT as bad as it may have seemed, etcetera . . . .

See, the media wins awards for portraying drug and alcohol addiction, which is good, if they show that they are bad to abuse, and how you can go about getting help, but what about other things too? There are other things like I mention above that , like that Growing Pains episode, really out of character for that series, but that one episode was a really important one for me at the time, made me realize that there were people out there who understood what teenagers like me, thought and felt about.

moviedoc said...

Thanks Sarebear. I put Somewhere in Time on my instant queue. I read NAMI gave Caveman's Valentine an award. Will be watching and tweeting that one Monday at 6pm PT.

Anonymous said...

The Fire Within

I would ask what effect covering up suicide has. All the people you know who did it but it is couched in other terms, whispers, no one dares say suicide. People who have never been there cannot begin to understand especially in a culture of silence and I think, see around me that usually it is hushed up.

moviedoc said...

Also a culture of euphemisms: The OR and WA assisted suicide laws both say it is death with dignity -- not suicide. The reason: so life insurance exclusion for suicide will not be invoked, maybe other reasons, too.

Sarebear said...

You are Welcome, Moviedoc; let me know what you think of the movie. That other one sounds interesting.

I found the Growing Pains episode, A Reason To Live Season 1987. An article I found said the series had done two suicide-related episodes, though this is the only one I remember.

Sadly, in my search I found a much more recent connection to this series and suicide; the young man who had played Kirk Cameron's friend "Boner" on Growing Pains, last name of Koenig (and son of Star Trek's Walter Koenig, aka Chekov on that Series), killed himself apparently earlier this year in or around Vancouver, or his body was found there. Sad, very sad.

I would have been 15 at the time of this particular Growing Pains episode, and it actually played a part in my speaking up a couple years later to ask my parents to get me help because I was not knowing how I could handle everything anymore, so it definitely influenced my life for the positive. Especially vulnerable time having just been uprooted from where I'd grown up and moved across country, too.

A brave episode for the times, and for that kind of a series, out of character, but I'm so glad they did it. Wish more series would step up to the plate.

Mental, or whatever it was called, last summer on Fox, was a good series, but that's not the kind of messagey thing like helped me. There really needs to be a much bigger effort.

TV execs don't strike me as the brave type in this way anymore, though, which is a pity. They're supposed to do public service stuff, in return for not being charged as much for the "free" networks, but I think sometimes what they do do in this area is just a sop, or just a decent effort, and not near as much as COULD be done. They could really TIE IN with some shows, if they wanted to . . . . especially on the suicide prevention theme. And do it in a way that doesn't show it in a way that would create more suicides; do it in a way that, like that show for me back in the 80's, would HELP . . . .


Sarebear said...

Movie spoilers below, especially 2012, if you haven't seen.

S'more for Moviedoc: I happen to specialize in disaster movies (and books, altho if they throw more than a mention of sex in, I tend to chuck the book, and no rated R movies), so that's why the following (some of them very loosely fit the disaster category lol).

2012 - yeah, lots of death and mayhem (not why I like disaster movies btw), but specifically Charlie Frost played by Woody Harrelson, as he watches and broadcasts from Yellowstone, watches it go up as a Super volcano . . . . has a chance to get out via the main character but says no I'll stay it's so beautiful . . . also, later on, don't know if this one is more being a good parent than anything because what parent WOULDN'T die for their kids . . . a big russian guy, selfish through the whole movie except for of course having paid a billion per seat to have his twin boys along on the ships that were saving people, well at the end one boy was on it, the thing was raising up, he was trying to lift his other boy up, around the thighs, he dug deep and hoisted him up higher by the calves so he could reach up and latch with his hands (the second boy being hoisted up) to the other boy reaching for him, as well as a man or two alongside the boy up on the ship . . . the Russian man had to lean forward as well over a chasm to do this to make sure his second boy got high and up on the ship, sealing his death as he fell.

So, suicide? or dying to protect ones' progeny? The movie already fits your list because of the Charlie Frost character anyway, and Sasha landing the plane on the glacier probably likely knew he wouldn't make it when he told the others to go without him, but that's debatable.

Really though, none of the above ruins the movie, it's a huge movie, and these are details. There's more of Charlie Frost in the movie than just that part.

Then there's two submarine movies, one is in wartime which, I think, makes the "suicide mission" that one character is ordered to do, fall under wartime/combat stuff cause his buddies would have died without it, so, does it "qualify" as suicide, especially since it was ordered, but then it's a moral mess, isn't it . . . U-571 is that one, I forget if that was on your list. Set in World War two when they go aboard a German u-boat to capture the Enigma encryption machine and end up having their own sub blown up so they have to operate the u-boat to get away, the Americans do, and it's in poor shape. Matthew McConaughey.

The other sub movie I'm thinking of is K-19, with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, and their poor Russian accents. Technically not wartime, based on a real incident though. Since an American sub was tailing them, and a problem developed in their nuclear reactor to where it might have gone critical and blown up, thus taking out both themselves AND the American sub that was shadowing them, which would have made the Americans think it was an act of war, an attack on the Americans (since it was during the cold war, although during any age it would have been might dang suspicious to have a sub disappear), and would have CAUSED a war, one might argue that the measures taken by the men and what they were ordered to do though it meant the deaths of many of them, and what some did when others wouldn't, also may or may not fall under the definition of suicide.

Military ones cause ambiguity, especially when not in times of war, like the last one, but a time of war WOULD have happened had they not done what they could to prevent the thing from going critical . . . so it's an interesting debate then.

Like Spock would say, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one . . . as far as those two sub shows go . . . perhaps. In real life, it gets alot messier than a pat saying.

moviedoc said...

Good grief, Sarebear, there are too many 2012 movies!

You are questioning whether to call it suicide when you die to protect others. Good question. Here are a couple more:

Seven Pounds: (with Woody again) Will Smith's character takes his life to give his organs to others, but also because he cannot live with what he has done, and has nothing to live for.

The last Alien flick where Ripley destroys herself to destroy the last monster and save humanity.

Sarebear said...

I meant 2012, the one with John Cusack, Amande Peet, Oliver Platt, that was released just a couple Tuesdays ago on DVD. The VERY recent movie.

I thought of another disaster one, not on your list. Titanic. One on screen, two mentions, and one that likely doesn't count but fits thematically with the two mentions. When disorder is breaking out amongst the people rushing the boats, one of the White Star Line men loading the boats fires on the crowd a couple times, and then particularly at one man, shooting and killing him. This shakes him so much, that he can't believe he's done such a thing, and he backs up, turns the gun on himself, shoots himself and falls overboard, just before doing so a co-worker cries, "Will, NO!".

You might argue, well, the ship is going down, he's dead anyway, but of all the men on board, the White Star men loading the boats were the most likely ones to make it off, as they needed to put a few of these per boat to help row them and be as leaders for the lifeboats. So he may have had a chance to make it off in the last few boats.

The two mentions were, Mr. Bruce Ismey, who crept aboard a boat; he was the White Star Line representative who urged the Captain to greater speed despite the icy North Atlantic waters, who later killed himself after having testified to Congress about the whole matter, and I believe it is mentioned in the movie that he did this. The other suicide mention is Caladen Hottley (sp?), a main character of the movie, Rose's fiance, who did make it off the boat despite being a man (not much of one), but being a steel tycoon, when the markets crashed in 1929, couldn't take it and offed himself, it is mentioned. The implication of both of these is that it is sort of "justice" for the actions of what the two men had done or how they had behaved, the one having contributed to the sinking of the Titanic, and the other having just been a horrible man all around.

Now, this whole sort of sub-hijacking of the comments on movies mentioning or showing suicide, and the atittudes portrayed about it, has really got me thinking, and surprised about how they are portrayed, and how often . . because the two mentioned ones, seem to be portrayed as almost divine justice, giving a sort of almost positive spin to it. I don't care what they did or how unpleasant they were, it is irresponsible of Hollywood to imply any kind of positive spin on suicide.

Which is, of course, part of why you collect such movies and get into the ways they are portrayed, is to show such things as this, no?

The last example, from Titanic, which, since he definitely would not have gotten on any boat, doesn't count as a suicide, but fits thematically with the two mentioned suicides and reinforces the "divine justice" thing and is why I mention it, is the Captain of the boat. A woman with a baby, from third class, comes up to him and asks him, "Captain, where do I go, where do we go?" and he just looks at her for a second and walks off to the Command Center room, pausing and looking around, and then enters the Wheel House room, closing the doors, awaiting his fate of going down with the ship. Which soon comes, as the waters fill the surrounding area, and then burst through the front windows of his room and he steels himself.

Given all the poor decisions he made, well, the whole justice is served thing is right there, but there's the long tradition of Captains going down with the ship. Still, he wouldn't have gotten a boat anyway. Even if there had been enough. Not a suicide, but since they seemed to be dishing out justice in the script to Rose's fiance via suicide, since he was a fictional character, and it was punctuated with the historical people of Mr. Ismey and the Captain.

Anyway. Another for your collection, and it pisses me off that there's a slight? positive implication on the suicide thing, which I had never thought of before in relation to this movie.

moviedoc said...

Sarebear: I found the right 2012 with imdb. (How do you remember all this stuff!?)

Titanic: What about deCaprio's character when he stays in the water? Would he have known he would die? Irresponsible of Hollywood? Maybe, but remember, this is art. It's not supposed to be proper or realistic or correct.

Why I collect these movies: really just so someone looking for pluviophobia will know they can find it in A Farewell to Arms. Also, for teaching: I got that idea from Phil Guerin who used to show I Never Sang for My Father to illustrate family emotional process at Center for Family Learning in the '80's.

Sarebear said...

Well, I watched both Titanic and 2012 within the last week and a half, so they're rather fresh in my mind, lol.

I've watched U-571 probably only 3-4 times but since it's got McConaughey in it I tend to watch it closely, hee. In K-19 it's a toss-up between Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford, although Ford butchers the accent more and is thus distracting, so I go for Liam there. Hrm, I'm sensing a theme, cute men, heh.

What's pluviophobia?

I also think I tend to remember stuff from these movies, disaster movies at any rate, because early in therapy, I asked my psychologist, wait a minute, I remember as a young teen being terrified to death of the "last days" as it were in the book of Revelations in the bible, and all the disasters in it, plagues, earthquakes, tornadoes, anything . . . so why is it that I love disaster movies and books?

It was the first time I had put the two together. He replied that people sometimes are drawn to that which they most fear, or some such thing like that. So I suspect that's why I remember the stuff from these movies so vividly, even though they don't seem to consciously evoke a fear reaction in me, no terror or anything like I'd feel when I think about someone watching, say, a Friday the 13th movie or Nightmare on Elm Street, none of which I've seen and I hope to goodness I never do, I'd die of fright and horror.

It's wierd then that I go for the disaster flicks given my young fears of such things, and my childhood terrors of volcanoes (I even thought the Hudson Valley was going to fill up with lava and burn us all up, I came out of an older sibling's science fair, one of my earliest memories I have, as a 7 year old, and looked around me, having newly learned about volcanoes from one of the projects, and looked at the Catskill Mountains and thought, they are going to spew lava and fill up the whole valley and we are going to die.)

I then had nightmares about it and never told a soul, for decades.

Still have to turn my head at certain scenes in Volcano (Tommy Lee Jones, Ann Heche, set in L.A. and the La Brea Tar Pits turn into a Volcano, etc.). That's the only one that consciously evokes anything, really. Is there a specific phobia about volcanoes? Vulcanophobia? Not the pointy-eared green kind, heh.

Yeah Leo's char knew he'd probably die but he had to try to save Rose. At least she didn't continue with the "You jump, I jump", theme, and give up and die with him, like I thought I saw cross her face for a minute, before she decided to go into the water to get the whistle, to draw attention so she could live . . . .

moviedoc said...

Sarebear, for pluviphobia: A Farewell to Arms

Could not find a term for volcano phobia.

Sarebear said...

I still to this day have nightmares that the mountains around me turn into volcanoes, and/or that the ground around them starts opening up into fissures with magma at the bottom, and that I and often others with me are on a journey and such fissures or magma coming down the side of a mountain force us to go another way, if another way is possible, and more keep happening.

It's been awhile since one of these nightmares, though, probably because I take clonazepam at night for a variety of reasons, but it'd likely shut down these horrific nightmares too. I don't have the bruises on my thighs anymore so I guess I wasn't just sleep-punching in the air, I must have been sleep-punching myself (which would definitely NOT be good anytime, but especially recovering from a knee replacement lol owie).

Anyway. Thank goodness I'm not having those, I hated them. If there was an official volcano phobia, I'd qualify.

I've sometimes thought, while I'd love to visit Hawaii, I'm not sure I'd be able to sleep at night, seriously. Logically I know it wouldn't blow up just because I'm there, but there's nothing logical about fear. Especially when it feels so primitive going back to childhood, it's very powerful.

Whoops, I DO go on.

Thanks for looking it up though, or trying to!

Mirror said...

Interesting topic. The influence of the media on suicide. I rmember thinking that No Country for Old men was so hopeless in tone that it would inspire suicides and violence in vulnerable people who saw it. In fact, the movie made me angry because of its sheer hopelessness and cynicism and my worries about it's negative effects, But, as far as I know, no suicides or tragedies were attributed to this film. I really love the Cohen Brothers and most of their films, but I was deeply disappointed in this particular film. I can't remember having this strong a negative reaction to any other film since I became licensed as a psychotherapist.

Not to intentionally change the direction of this discussion, but I have noticed that the internet is playing a rather unusual role in suicides these days. There have been several mass murders written about in the media in recent years that have culminated in the suicides of the perpetrators that were basically written about (previewed)on the internet before they happened. It's as if the perpetrators/victims wanted desperately for their tragic actions to be understood by the general public. Recently, for example, an engineer who had experienced a long history of problems with self-employment and with the IRS finally decided to set his house on fire and then, filled his small plane with gasoline so that he could presumably cause a larger amount of death and destruction, and then flew his plane into an IRS office in Austin, Texas. He was married, had step-children, and played in a band in his spare time. Very angry, and apparently, not depressed. A lengthy internet blog detailing his plans and his logic (or lack of the same) was located on the internet almost immediately after the plane crashed.

Comments on the expanding role of the internet for public suicide notes? It's as if these people are basically slapping authorities and the public in the face with their own failures to prevent these suicides.

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