Sunday 5 July, 2020

Copy-cat behaviour fueling murder-suicides?

Is there a tipping point for suicide ideation? Is the act of murder-suicide becoming contagious, triggering copy-cat behaviour in other males in Jamaica?

In a 1983 New York Times article, it was reported that "in the islands of Micronesia, young men are killing themselves at one of the highest rates in the world, researchers say, and no one knows what to do about it."

The article went on to say that "suicides among males between the ages of 15 and 30 are so prevalent that they have become an accepted method of problem-solving in the island societies where harmony is highly prized, according to the Rev Francis Hezel and Dr Don Rubinstein," at that time.

The phenomenon now begs the question of whether Jamaican men have become enamoured with the idea of suicide, having become unable to deal with emotional problems wrought by conflict with their spouses?

And is each murder-suicide in Jamaica acting as a trigger to other males in similar scenarios, thereby giving them ‘permission’ to commit this final atrocity?

"It is a possibility," noted psychiatrist, Dr Leachim Semaj, told Loop News reporter Claude Mills. "Copy-cat behaviour is a definite possibility by virtue of a murder-suicide happening like the one that was so widely discussed yesterday - and receiving the media attention it did. It may cause someone else who is on the edge to think about it, and believe that they ‘might as well do it’, and respond in a similar manner."

Semaj was careful, however, not to blame the media for the surge in suicides locally over recent times.

"Most people consume a lot more social media, and the kinds of graphic footage available of crime scenes on social media - things that traditional media houses would never broadcast - and the thoughtless comments made under these stories, are sometimes shocking," he said.

He, however, added that the media needs to also provide "a critique, an admonition, and give context to certain events".

Added he: "Just as it is with dancehall, it is not enough to describe it. To describe without rebuttal, explanation and critique, is to facilitate approval."

Earlier this week, along Waltham Park Road in St Andrew, there was a murder-suicide involving two correctional officers, in which 42-year-old Roulene Clarke Cowan was shot dead by her estranged husband, Patrick Cowan, who later killed himself. The couple's 12-year-old daughter reportedly witnessed the incident.

Less than 24 hours later, there was an attempted murder-suicide which was disturbingly similar in its execution. A man known only as 'Suddy', a labourer of McIntosh Drive in Kingston, and his common-law wife had an altercation about 2:00 a.m., when he reportedly used a stone to inflict wounds to her head.

The police were alerted and the woman was seen lying in a pool of blood in an unconscious state.

The police discovered 'Suddy's' body hanging by its neck by a piece of cord which was tied to a tree.

The police said the woman was admitted to hospital in a serious condition.

There has been a marked spike in the number of suicides locally this year, as, according to statistics from the Corporate Communication Unit (CCU) of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), there have been 25 cases of reported suicide for the period January 1, 2019 to April 11, 2019. This represents a 40 per cent increase over the corresponding period in 2018, when there were 14 such reported incidents.

The most salient takeaway from the discussion is the disturbingly weird degree to which human behaviour can influence behaviour in others. Many believe that the idea of suicide could well go viral in the minds of easily influenced young Jamaican men with poor coping skills and challenging romantic relationships. 

Author Malcolm Gladwell, who is of Jamaican parentage, wrote in 'The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference', that even stories in the media can be a trigger point for others suffering from depression to summon the courage to do the deed.

He wrote: "Stories about suicides resulted in an increase in single-car crashes, where the victim was the driver. Stories about suicide-murders resulted in an increase in multiple-car crashes in which the victims included both drivers and passengers. Stories about young people committing suicide resulted in more traffic fatalities involving young people. Stories about older people committing suicide resulted in more traffic fatalities involving older people. These patterns have been demonstrated on many occasions."

Gladwell, who in his book examined how ideas and products often go viral and spread, continued: "News coverage of a number of suicides by self-immolation in England in the late 1970s, for example, prompted 82 suicides by self-immolation over the next year. The ‘permission’ given by an initial act of suicide, in other words, isn't a general invitation to the vulnerable. It is really a highly detailed set of instructions, specific to certain people in certain situations, who choose to die in certain ways. It's not a gesture. It's speech.”

In closing, Semaj implored the media to resist the "if it bleeds, it leads" impulse, and instead, adopt a gentler, conciliatory approach because the media is part of the narrative of people's daily lives.

"Can the media provide a 'suicide prevention space', provide insight into the behaviour of suicides and give it the same prominence as the original news story? We need to teach women how to identify the problems early, and get out of the relationship. We need to look at the bigger picture of problem-solving. Too many men resort to violence to solve their problems," Semaj said.

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