The real threat of suicide contagion under a Trump presidency

Suggesting that hate leads directly to suicide could actually increase suicide rates.

A protest outside Trump Tower the night after the election. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
A protest outside Trump Tower the night after the election. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

In the days immediately following Donald Trump’s election as president, a rumor started circulating on social media that a group of as many as eight or nine transgender teens had committed suicide because of the results. The report was never confirmed, but was highlighted by some outlets after being amplified by The Guardian’s Zach Stafford. A week later, the rumor remains unproven, and likely not true.

What’s most disturbing about this anecdote is the harm that it may have done in and of itself — and still would have done if it were true. Suicide is, strangely enough, a phenomenon that can be “contagious.” Hearing about suicide, especially when it’s discussed in ways that suggest it’s understandable — or even worse, inevitable — normalizes it and spreads what’s known as “suicide contagion,” especially for those enduring similar hardships.

There has been a surge of hate incidents in the wake of Trump’s election, and many across the country are worried about the discrimination they could be subjected to. Many LGBT people have reached out to crisis hotlines because of the fear the election results sparked—but conflating a call to a hotline with an intention to commit suicide can similarly contribute to suicide contagion.

The LGBT community, in particular, has experienced suicide contagion before. In 2010, there was a spate of suicides among LGBT teens who had experienced bullying and rejection because of their identities. Many experts argued at the time that the sensationalism around the stories was contributing to additional suicides. Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project was a response to those deaths.

ThinkProgress reached out to Ann Haas, a suicide prevention consultant who previously served as senior director of education and prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, to discuss the election and the real risk of suicide contagion in the months and years ahead.

THINKPROGRESS: What has been your perception of the aftermath of Trump’s election in terms of stories, verified or otherwise, about suicide?

ANN HAAS: The connection to suicide seems to have started with media reports of an unprecedented number of people calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the early morning hours of Nov. 9 to express their shock, anger, anxiety, and general distress about Trump’s election. Mention was also made that the crisis line of The Trevor Project had been overwhelmed with LGBT youth callers.

People call crisis lines for all sorts of reasons, some marginally or not at all related to suicide. For millions of people, Trump’s election was a national crisis, evoking intense emotions of distress, anger, vulnerability, isolation, fear, and anxiety. Because the crisis emerged in the middle of the night, it is not surprising that many people lacked access to supportive friends and family and turned to the hotlines as a place to express their feelings. Unfortunately, media reports provided little of this context, rather emphasizing call volumes that implied the election was causing an enormous number of people to become suicidal. Over the next several days, reports of suicide deaths began to emerge.

A story that has circulated a lot is that eight or more transgender youth committed suicide because of the election, though those reports have not been proven. Why do you think people feel compelled to share such stories?

The unsubstantiated rumors of suicides by multiple trans youth immediately following Trump’s election should be understood in the context of a chain of developments that has taken place over the last number of years. Since 2010, when a number of highly publicized suicides among LGBT teens were attributed to bullying, many in our communities have come to see suicide as a simple, direct, and predictable result of anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination. This perspective, which sidesteps years of research pointing to the complexity of suicide causation, has increasingly focused on suicide as the ultimate bad outcome of hate-driven events, using actual or anticipated suicides to underscore the threat and motivate public opposition.

The recent controversy around anti-trans bathroom bills provides a case in point. The headline of a piece in The Daily Beast (3/17/16) proclaimed,Trans Teen: Suicide Rates Rise When Bathroom Access is Restricted,” sourcing a young trans activist who testified to a Tennessee legislative subcommittee that their attempt to bar students’ access to gender-appropriate bathrooms would “exponentially” increase suicides among trans youth. In the quest to tie suicide to restrict bathroom access policies, activists have been aided by some research of dubious scientific quality, such as a study described in the Feb. 2016 issue of The Journal of Homosexuality, which claimed to find a “relationship” between suicidality and transgender college students’ access to campus bathrooms and housing.

To be clear, anti-LGBT bias and discrimination in any form has the potential to cause real damage to the psychological well-being of LGBT people, and thus the potential to increase suicide risk. But exposure to hate and discrimination does not lead to suicide in any mechanistic or universal way, and suggesting that it does misinforms and increases risk among vulnerable people.

What happens when people repeatedly read about suicides being connected to a certain event or set of circumstances?

Repeatedly reading or hearing about suicides that occur in response to hate-driven events feeds the belief that these events cause suicide and heighten risk for all exposed. This sends a distorted message about suicide causation that ignores the role of personal resilience, psychological health, and interpersonal and community support as protective factors against suicide, even in the presence of distressing life events.

A minority of people, however, may be struggling with a mental health condition and circumstances that foster identification with those who have died by suicide and fuel a desire to emulate their behavior. These are the people we worry about when we caution reporters to not to romanticize suicidal behavior, exaggerate its frequency, or attribute it solely to and events or set of circumstances that potentially affect a large segment of the population.

How does context impact how we should consider specific suicide stories? I’m thinking, for example, of Chelsea Manning’s suicide attempt, or a recent story about a trans youth in a Maine detention center who committed suicide.

Suicide is fundamentally an act of desperation, an urgent attempt to escape from pain that can’t be tolerated. There are certainly cases in which LGBT people experience such feelings and become suicidal. And sometimes, circumstances directly related to being LGBT contribute in a significant way to desperation and despair.

We need to be especially careful not to assume that we know what underlies suicidal behavior in anyone without credible first-hand information, so I believe restraint is needed with respect to individual cases such as Chelsea Manning’s. In such cases, the best approach is to be empathetic about the circumstances while not implying they completely explain the behavior.

What’s your best advice to those who are concerned about protecting people who might be targeted with stigma and discrimination, particularly given the surge of hateful acts that seem to have been prompted (or emboldened) by Trump’s election?

I think first, it’s important to give voice to the fear, anxiety, and vulnerability so many of us are feeling in the wake of the election. But rather than focusing so much on negative outcomes, we need to be holding up more examples of people who are resilient in the face of such feelings, reaching out to those who are struggling, or taking positive steps to counter stigma and discrimination, or going beyond their own depression and despair.

We also need to redouble our efforts to ensure our media communications are safe and accurate. All stories that touch on suicide should be carefully checked against the guidelines found in Talking About Suicide in LGBT Populations and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. Whenever possible, sources should include suicide experts.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.