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7 Myths About Suicide

The recent tragedies of Kate Spade's and Anthony Bourdain's suicides—and the ensuing media storm—raised awareness of suicide as a mental health issue, but also generated a lot of misinformation. This week, the Savvy Psychologist cleans up after the headlines.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #34

Myth #4: Individuals Who Commit Suicide Must Have Wanted to Die

Fact: Individuals who commit suicide wanted to end their pain, which is not the same thing as wanting to die. Anecdotal interviews with surviving jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge find that many changed their minds in midair. The most-quoted is a survivor named Ken Baldwin, who recalls that, at the moment he jumped from the bridge in 1985, he "instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”   

Again, if you’re someone who’s been left behind, framing it this way—wanting to end their pain—may not make things better, but may make their actions more understandable.

Myth #5: If You Try to Protect Someone by Taking Away His Method, He’ll Just Find Another Way to Kill Himself

Fact: Prevention works. Speaking of the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic orange span is the #1 suicide location in the Western hemisphere. In 2017, 39 people jumped from the bridge. However, plans have been approved for a $200 million suicide barrier, due for completion in 2021.

Doubters might say that future jumpers will just go elsewhere. Not so: a 2013 meta-analysis analyzed data from 22 previous studies to see what happens when protective structures like safety nets or fences are built on bridges, viaducts, and cliffs. The result? While there was an increase of suicides at nearby structures without nets, the overall suicide numbers dropped by almost a third.

So that’s prevention. But what about those who attempt, but are stopped? Won’t they just try again later? Surprisingly, no. A classic 1978 study tracked 515 people, from 1937 to 1971, who were saved before they jumped from—again—the Golden Gate Bridge, and found that 90% were alive, or had died from natural causes, even decades later.

And while you might not be able to build a bridge-sized net on your own, one thing you can do to prevent suicide among those you love is to keep guns out of your home. A 2004 study found that men with guns in the home are more than 10 times as likely to die from suicide than men without guns in the home. And a classic 1986 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that for every time a gun in the home kills an intruder in self-defense, 37 people with guns in the home commit suicide.

Myth #6: People Don’t Copycat--They’ll Kill Themselves Regardless of the Media 

Fact: Copycatting is a real thing. Dozens of studies have shown that pervasive coverage or reporting specific details, both of which unfortunately occurred after Robin Williams’s 2014 death and occurred to an extent with last week's celebrity suicides, can pave the way for copycats. Knowing exactly how the hanging was set up, the dosage of medication used, or the brand of razor drops a ready-made plan in the lap of someone on the edge. Responsible journalists should tell the story without the explicit details.

However, speaking personally, I do think it’s important to report a death as a suicide—as opposed to concealing the cause—so clusters can be identified and stopped. For example, over a six-month period in 2009, four separate teenagers from a high school in my community killed themselves in the same way. If these deaths had been deemed accidental, it still would have been tragic, but a pattern wouldn’t have been identified--and the need for community education and prevention measures would have been missed.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.