Suicide prevention advocates brace for ‘copycats’
When a beautiful actress recommends using a particular shampoo, or a macho action movie star drives a specific model of car, the public listens. Many may follow the famous person’s example.
That’s why companies hire the famous, the beautiful, the influential to deliver their message to the public.
When famous people commit suicide, mental health and suicide prevention advocates always brace for “copycat” suicides from those who were teetering on the edge and find an unfortunate source of encouragement from someone they admired.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade both ended their lives in separate acts of desperation earlier this month. Their deaths received a lot of publicity, perhaps even more because they occurred so close together.
“It is always a concern for copycats when something like this happens,” Dr. L.J. Mayeux, Avoyelles coroner, said. “It is not as much of a threat in a rural parish like Avoyelles because celebrities don’t tend to hold as much influence.”
Even if there is less of a “follow the leader” mentality, it is a time of heightened awareness.
Mental health experts say media coverage of a celebrity’s suicide, especially tabloid coverage focusing on grisly details of the death, can result in “suicide contagion.”
There is statistical evidence to support these fears.
Suicides were almost 10 percent higher than expected in the months following actor Robin Williams' suicide in August 2014, a Columbia University study reported.
Even more disturbing is that suicides involving suffocation -- the method Williams used -- increased by 32 percent immediately following his death.
When Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, the nation’s suicide rate increased 12 percent in the months following her death.
Mayeux said there have been four obvious suicides in the parish in the first six months. That number could be higher.
“There are 12 more deaths by overdose where it is unclear whether the overdose was accidental or intentional,” Mayeux said. “There was no note or stated intent to do themselves harm in those deaths, so we do not classify them as suicides.”
Avoyelles has had one of the highest per-capita suicide rates in the state over the past several years. Using a straight deaths-per-100,000 population calculation, Avoyelles’ rate has been over twice the national average of 13.5 for most of the past decade.
According to World Life Expectancy.com’s adjusted parish-to-parish comparison, this area has the state’s highest suicide rate, with Evangeline the highest at 21.87 suicides per 100,000 population, Avoyelles second with 18.43, St. Landry fourth at 16.56 and Pointe Coupee sixth at 15.86.
If there is no additional suicides this year, Avoyelles would have a suicide rate of about 10 per 100,000. If the rate of suicide is the same for the last half of the year, the rate would again surpass the state average of about 14.2 and reach 20.0.
While that is high, it is an improvement over past years.
Mayeux credits the improved results to local efforts to raise awareness and present resources to prevent suicide.
“The people involved in SaveCenla have done a wonderful job,” Mayeux said. “They have brought the issue to the forefront and shown that it is ok to talk to people about suicide and there are places where people can turn to for help.”
Mayeux said he believes there have been fewer suicides over the past two years “because of the actions and proactive efforts in the parish.”
Angie Dixon, one of the founders of SaveCenla, said celebrity suicides alone will not cause others to kill themselves.
However, she agrees that those who have been considering suicide may be pushed to act on those thoughts following a highly publicized death.
“I personally believe suicide is a mental health issue and that mental health is a condition just like a heart condition or other physical health condition,” Dixon said. “Celebrities are not immune to this disease. Like everyone else, they may want to hide it. In fact, they may hide it more than others.”
It is unfortunate when a celebrity is unable to deal with their condition and sees suicide as a way to end their pain, she added.
Save Cenla is a private non-profit organization focused on mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
It has held several awareness events in the past two years and conducts suicide prevention training workshops. Its most recent was a two-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) course at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Hessmer.
Workshop participants are taught how to recognize those at risk of suicide and how to work with those people to create a plan that secures their immediate safety.
ASIST is used by health care professionals, but does not require any previous formal training to attend. The course is beneficial to anyone.
There are several resources available to provide assistance for those in immediate need of attention or in need of help to prevent suicide or address mental health issues.
Dixon said those “in crisis” should go to the nearest emergency room. She said Avoyelles Hospital and Bunkie General Hospital both do a thorough suicide evaluation.
Beacon Behavioral Health in Bunkie, Longleaf in Alexandria and St. Frances Cabrini Hospital also provide support for the suicide prevention/treatment efforts.
Dixon said a person’s primary care physician is also a good source to contact to address suicidal thoughts.
Other contacts for assistance include the state’s Caring Choices of Marksville (formerly the Avoyelles Mental Health Center), at 253-9638.
For more information, visit savecenla.com or call 337-519-1888 or 337-288-0973.