It was not until one year after the 10th grader’s suicide that Deborah Offner allowed her students to erect a public memorial. Offner, who was then the staff psychologist at The Commonwealth School in Boston, extended her office hours immediately after the 2012 tragedy so that students could seek her counsel, and invited experts to help the faculty cope. But she warned administrators not to cancel classes or allow a public memorial service until at least 2013.
“Our students were surprised, confused, and resentful when we told them they could not immediately create a public memorial,” Offner says. They had expectations. Memorials for suicide victims are ubiquitous, and campus halls are dedicated in memory of students who have taken their own lives. After a high school suicide, we expect to see a flag flown at half-mast. Public memorial services, glowing obituaries, a promise that the victim will never be forgotten. Surely this is what the students and faculty at The Commonwealth School expected. Offner refused.
Her reason? Suicide contagion. Studies have shown that suicide is socially contagious, and that there is a statistically significant spike in suicide attempts after most high-profile suicides. Sensationalized media reports, tearful memorial services, and other public displays of mourning can motivate kids who are contemplating suicide to take the plunge—especially in the weeks and months immediately after a classmate commits suicide. It makes sense. Public memorials for suicide victims may be designed to comfort loved ones and immortalize the deceased. But they also unwittingly tell teens who feel invisible and unappreciated that suicide can fix that.
“Lavish memorial services and dedications are adamantly discouraged by mental health professionals. Such events glamorize and romanticize suicide,” Offner told Fatherly. “Teens can be prone to imagining how they might be celebrated were they to die by suicide.”
Discussion of suicide contagion has reached fever pitch recently, with Netflix launching a new season of its controversial 13 Reasons Why. The series, which chronicles the suicide of its protagonist, has been accused of romanticizing self-harm and, indeed, studies suggest that there was a marked increase in teens presenting at the emergency room with depression, mood disorders, or attempted suicide in the days following the series release. One study found that the release was linked to a 26 percent increase in Google searches for “how to commit suicide.”
But sympathetic television shows aren’t the only source of contagion. Studies suggest that irresponsible media coverage of suicide — often depicted in sympathetic terms, especially after the death of a celebrity — may tempt vulnerable children to engage in self-harm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention add that “community expressions of grief”, such as flying flags at half-mast or erecting memorials, may send the harmful message to teens that suicide is noble, that their actions will be forgiven, and that everyone will notice what they did and remember them fondly. That’s why one of the best-regarded guidebooks on preventing suicide, published by The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, explicitly advises against holding memorial services on school grounds.
Schools seldom pay much attention to these guidelines. In 2017, for instance, hundreds of students gathered in Colorado to pay tribute to two classmates who had committed suicide. The stood in the dark, the lights of their cell phones illuminating a collection of flowers and messages posted to the school’s stone signpost. One could have mistaken the proceedings for a roadside memorial dedicated to a car crash victim. “I think the best guideline is treating it like a kid who died by car accident or who died by cancer,” one expert told reporters on the scene.
Demonstrations such as these put Offner in an awkward position after that 2012 suicide. It seemed callous to dismiss her students’ desires to memorialize their friend and she knew that a memorial could help her constituents cope. She also understood that suicide victims are no more in control of their lives than cancer patients or car crash victims. “It is important to acknowledge clearly that suicide is not a choice or a decision, but a reaction to problems that seem insurmountable and, in all likelihood, a depressive illness,” Offner says. But memorials don’t communicate this clearly. The medium is the message.
And when it comes to suicide memorials, that message is fraught. Cancer memorials don’t come with risks. Suicide memorials do.
“Contagion is real and it happens because of media and inappropriate messaging about suicide, but also because of memorialization,” says Daniel J. Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and member of the National Council for Suicide Prevention and the International Association for Suicide Prevention. “It is ok to honor and pay tribute to someone who has died by suicide, as with any death, but that over-glamorizing, memorializing, permanent memorials — should be avoided.”
This is especially true with teenagers. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds, and up to 16 percent of teens contemplate suicide in high school. Although bullying, assault, and mental health challenges play a role, teens are probably most vulnerable due to their own developing brains. An adult brain expresses emotions and impulses via the hippocampus and amygdala, and controls those feelings through the prefrontal cortex. But the emotional brain centers mature long before the control centers, which means that high school students stumble through their teenage years with adult feelings, but childish ways of controlling them and putting them into context. The result is poor, and often fatal, decision-making.
“Attempt rates among 15- to 24-year-olds is higher than that of any other group,” Lyn Morris, a family therapist at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services told Fatherly. Since teenagers are more likely to commit suicide and worse at emotional regulation, Morris says, the risk of contagion is far greater. “We strongly advise schools against memorializing students who have died by suicide. Schools are not appropriate places to memorialize a student who died by suicide.”
One alternative to dangerous public memorials is to encourage friends and family of a victim to construct private memorials, so they can process their grief without risk of contagion. “Creating a memory book, planting a tree, making a memorial donation, sharing photos and stories as well as an event that is sensitive to cultural, spiritual or religious beliefs, can provide closure,” Charlene Dimas-Peinado, president of the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic, told Fatherly.
Another strategy is to encourage students to comfort the family, rather than memorialize the victim. This shifts focus from the suicide victim (who doesn’t need it any more) to the family, and may even help discourage suicide by driving home the realities of how suicide destroys the lives of those left behind.
“Family and friends may never have all the answers as to why a loved one took their life. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide have a mental illness,” Michelle Carlson, director of the crisis hotline TEEN LINE, told Fatherly. “I have lost four loved ones to suicide, including my father, a mental health professional. People can support others by providing the space to listen and connect them to resources for additional help and support.”
And months later, when the fear of contagion has worn off, gathering to memorialize the deceased can help friends and family heal without putting anyone in harm’s way. The 10th grader who had died by suicide in Offner’s school had been a budding artist. One year after her death, Offner encouraged the victim’s friends to exhibit her artwork in a prominent location. “We also arranged a special room for students to drop in on the one-year anniversary of her death,” Offner says. “They could play music and do art, talk about their memories of their friend and classmate. I think this was as helpful, if not more so, than the art. But it’s hard to know.”
But Offner never regrets her decision to hold off on a memorial. The risk of contagion was too great, she says, and it would have been irresponsible to put other vulnerable teens in danger. “The students felt a memorial would pay tribute to what an amazing person this girl was, and mark that she was much more than her death,” Offner says. “School administration and students had to agree to disagree. We knew the students could not fully understand our stance.”