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  • Writer's pictureDr. Vic

Contagion of psychological states: The nexus of politics and suicide prevention

It should not come as news that people are influenced by those around them. Historically, this influence was often seen in ethical or moral terms. More than 1500 years ago, the Talmud (Ethic of the Fathers 1:7) states: “distance yourself from a bad neighbor, don’t befriend a wicked person”. There is a presumption that we are influenced by those around us in our attitudes and behaviors.

I would like to suggest that, while important, the influence we can have on each other goes psychologically much deeper than our morals and behaviors. The types of influence I’ll be discussing have been extremely impactful in recent years and while it is my intent to focus my comments on the psychological meanings and ramifications of recent events, I will be veering into observations about politics as well (consider this your “trigger” warning). I will also be considering how this relates to the phenomenon of suicide contagion and what we might learn about how to prevent this tragic phenomenon.

Mood and Affect contagion-and more

Have you ever noticed that when you spend time with people who are anxious, sad, or happy, you often start to feel those feelings yourself? Or consider, when you are with a crying baby you typically will feel uneasy and tense, but a smiling baby almost always evokes smiles in those around them-especially if eye contact is made. Feelings and moods are easily and seemingly automatically communicated to those nearby. This is for most of us innate and has tremendous survival value. Caretakers are “programmed” psychologically to respond to the distress of their helpless infants, or vulnerable children; and family members and friends resonate to the feelings of their loved ones. This is fundamental to human relationships and empathy. It happens mostly out of our awareness and has tremendous benefits-and also risks.

A few years ago, Facebook did a controversial study in which they presented people with different news feeds. Not surprisingly when people were “fed” more positive news, their posts took on a more positive tone and when the feed was more negative, so were the people’s own posts. This demonstrated that emotional contagion occurs when people are not actually together-but over media and social media too.

But more than feelings can be communicated among people. As noted above, morals are often communicated as well and so are ideas, attitudes, and general mental states. We communicate and influence each other more impactfully and consistently than we imagine. This is central to advertising, political campaigning, even teaching. This influence can occur in groups that are simply together but the tighter the emotional and personal connections (real or imagined) the greater the likelihood for influence. This is what we mean by identification-the more one sees oneself as tied to or connected to someone (or to a group), the more likely they are to be able to connect to our emotions and influence our state of mind.

These connections can be fostered by a number of factors. These include the regularity and intensity of contact and the intensity (love, deep friendship but also fear or anger) of shared feelings-if you admire or feel close to someone, you are more likely to be open to their influence. This is also true if you feel dependent on someone. Advertisers try to get us to buy things by using celebrities who are typically admired/looked up to (we refer to them as “star” as if they are nearly celestial-bigger than life) to promote them and at the extreme this also explains the strange phenomena of brainwashing (the ability to get people to believe things that are not true or do things they would typically not do) and Stockholm Syndrome-where people seem to fall in love with people who kidnap them-the circumstance of being totally dependent on someone for your survival and feeling helpless and frightened precipitates feelings of dependency and a wish to be cared for-which can feel like love.

So to sum up, the dose and intensity of information and emotional input and our vulnerability and openness to it-either because of trusting positive emotional ties or our sense of helplessness, fear, and dependency-will determine how easily and intensely we may be influenced by others.

Current events

In the past several years, those of us in the US have experienced a storm-like impact on our mental state and an effort to impact our attitudes and behaviors. The past president battered the country with a relentless torrent of chaotic communication, fluctuating attention, impulsivity, hostility, anger and ragefullness, fear-mongering (“American carnage” and “caravans”), inconsistent grasp of observable facts (the flu pandemic of 1918 occurring in 1917), grandiosity (“I alone can fix it”), a tendency to blame others and never take responsibility for problems, and wish-drivenness (I will note that these characteristics were obvious whether or not you agreed with his policy stances). We typically associate these characteristics with emotional immaturity.

I would suggest that the psychology of the nation as a whole was impacted by this intense emotional and cognitive input. I heard from so many in the past 4 years (even prior to the COVID pandemic) that sleep and attention had become more difficult, that they were unable to read, that they felt more edgy and irritable and even had trouble with memory. Many described what felt like being on an endless loop of a roller coaster-it is enjoyable for a few minutes but when you find you can’t get off, it feels dizzying and disorienting. It often felt like a massive national pull towards ADHD and psychological regression-to more primitive modes of relating and function.

It is important to note that while most everyone who was paying any attention to the news and current events has had some emotional response to this powerful emotional input, the responses differed. Much of the population experienced this as disturbing and troubling because of the cognitive, emotional, and attentional dissonance that was evoked. But quite a few found the connection to the source of these overheated emotions to be reassuring-since they were told that only the president spoke the truth and could protect them. For some, there was a national “Stockholm syndrome”-the person who was largely putting them at risk came to be seen as the protector and even magical savior for some.

Suicide Contagion

The prior discussion was presented primarily to explain how even distressing emotional and mental states can be communicated among people-it was an attempt to explain how even painful or unpleasant mental states can impact and potentially influence others in harmful ways. This is a central challenge in understanding suicide contagion. It seems difficult for most of us to imagine how people might be psychologically and behaviorally influenced by obviously painful feelings and behaviors. Why would anyone “copy” such a frightening and disturbing behavior from others? If you consider the discussion above, I believe the answer becomes clearer. Not only that, but it also explains why the guidelines for safe reporting on suicide make sense.

Suicide contagion is in fact a form of emotional/behavioral contagion. Recall that this psychological contagion occurs when the input is intense, and the openness or vulnerability is high. We know that when there is repeated and highly dramatic or lurid reporting of a suicide, it increases risk of contagion-there is lots of intense emotionally-laden input. Pictures are more emotionally impactful than word descriptions. We also know that the more an individual feels an emotional connection or empathy with the person who died by suicide-their emotions are attuned and are more open to identifying or connecting with the feelings and the act. Further, if someone is already experiencing emotional distress and/or depression and feeling isolated and themselves at risk, the more open they are to emotional (and in this instance) suicidal contagion. This also explains why younger people-who are more open in general to emotional and behavioral contagion are also more at risk for suicide contagion. It also explains why overly dramatic eulogies or memorials raise the risk of contagion-these promote identification with the deceased-“look how much love they are getting..I wish I could be loved like that”.

My final observation is, I think, not often enough discussed in preventing suicide contagion and is very difficult to accomplish. But if my analysis is correct, it is quite important. As I noted above, when there is lots of raw, intense, chaotic, and primal emotion, there is, I argue, greater vulnerability to psychological/emotional contagion. When we feel scared and vulnerable, we will have less resistance to emotional/psychological input. This can occur on both the individual level-someone who feels/is personally fragile is more open to influence. But I contend it can happen on a school or community level as well. If the community feels out of control, scared, chaotic, it raises everyone’s anxiety somewhat but might be highly impactful for someone already vulnerable.

What to do?

Fortunately, while suicide contagion is real and does occur, the impediments to acting are high and it is not a frequent event-but the risks are real and while we cannot predict individual risk accurately, we can understand the phenomenon and take some steps to lower risk in general for a group or community.

It is important that media be educated to understand their role in either increasing or diminishing suicide risk-especially for young people.

Further when a suicide occurs in a school or community, we need to remain vigilant for those who might be most vulnerable to seeing themselves in the person who has died. Teachers, parents, and clinicians need to be listening for comments and acts that reflect a closeness or emotional identification with the person who has died and intervene. They need to be vigilant without over-communicating about the suicide-since this increases the “dose” of input.

At the same time, the system or community needs to do what it can to develop and communicate a sense of steadiness and calm leadership (even if this feels a bit false) in order to keep the emotional valence of the community as controlled and neutral as possible. This helps to shore up the psychological boundaries among community members and hopefully those at potential risk. This is often very hard to accomplish-since a community suicide naturally evokes intense emotion and emotional closeness among those in the community- but having calm and steady leadership can make a substantial difference in the helping a community respond to tragedy or intense challenge.

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