Can suicide spread from person to person like a virus? Actor Choi Jin-young, 39, took his own life on Monday, just a year and a half after the suicide of his superstar actress sister Choi Jin-sil. Ha Kyoo-seob, president of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention and a psychiatry professor at Seoul National University, said, "Suicide is very contagious."
According to a study in Taiwan, those who have lost a family member to suicide are 4.2 times more likely to kill themselves than those who have not. "Foreign studies have shown that each suicide has serious mental effects on an average of six people, such as parents, siblings and friends," Ha said. "Six is a conservative figure, as it counts only those who might be affected so deeply that they would not be able to lead a normal life."
He added, "The strongest emotional shock that human beings experience is the death of a spouse, followed by the death of family members such as parents, children and siblings. Family members of someone who committed suicide suffer from intense feelings of guilt. They first wonder if the person died because of them, and that develops into guilt over not being able to have stopped it or spotted symptoms."
Suicide can be even more contagious when it involves celebrities like the Chois. An average of 35 people commit suicide every day in Korea, totaling some 1,000 per month and 12,800 per year. But in October 2008 when Choi Jin-sil killed herself, the number reached 1,700. When a celebrity commits suicide, a wave of copycat suicides follows. This phenomenon is known as the Werther effect, named for the character of Goethe's novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther."
"Some people may be particularly vulnerable to the 'suicide virus,'" Ha said. "Some studies suggest that people who committed suicide had conspicuously low levels of serotonin, which controls emotions, anxiety and impulses, and 60 to 70 percent of them had suffered from depression."
Ha added, "The media's sympathetic portrayal of people dying by suicide is also problematic as it can justify suicide among the public. The media should promote the message that suicide is the wrong choice in any situation."