On February 11th 1963 Sylvia Plath took her own life.
She taped the outer edges of her kitchen door frame, turned on the gas, placed her head in the oven, and waited as her lungs filled with carbon monoxide before falling into a coma and dying. Her children were asleep upstairs.
Ever since this tragic death, there have been countless reasons given to explain her passing, with few ever sticking to the ultimate truth; it was not just the breakdown of her marriage to Ted Hughes, or that he was seeing another woman (Alyssia Wevill who would later commit suicide in a way almost identical to Plath, only Wevill killed the child she had with Hughes, Sura, too) but that she was sick.
Though, at best, she would not have felt pain as she died, the mountainous suffering she had experienced at the hands of her mental illness and depression was spread to those around her, and as such her suicide didn't end the pain, but merely pass it on.
Her death in the 2003 biopic film Sylvia is shown in a disturbing, dangerous beauty. She stands in her kitchen, euphoric in a drug or toxin-induced stupor, not desperately trying to die with her head as far as possible inside an oven. It disguises the scarcely comprehensible horror of such an act, and masks it with a romantic veneer. It is little wonder then, that there have been some suicides directly inspired by her death.
The idea that there is some beauty or romance in suicide, some tortured individual or couple finally freeing themselves from pain and suffering is irresponsible. Were all suicides talked about as they should (and often are) as cataclysmic, moments of human suffering, then it is quite possible there would be fewer.
The Werther Effect
In response to such widely reported suicides, there has often been a measured rise in similar suicides shortly thereafter. This is a measurable occurrence known as the Werther Effect, named after the protagonist of Goethe's famous novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Wherein the titular character ultimately kills himself. After the book's initial success some young men committed suicide in ways identical to the death of Wether in the novel, and such a trend continues.
After the death of Marilyn Monroe (which was likely accidental) there was a 12% rise in suicides. There have been similar related suicides after the deaths of many others such as Virginia Woolf, Van Gogh, and Kurt Cobain.
At times the "copycat" suicide doesn't even need to come from the suicide of a famous person.
Since 2007 there has been a incredibly high rate of suicides in the town of Bridgend in Wales, each suicide likely inspiring each other.
Aokigahara forest in Japan, is famous for the extremely high number of suicides that happen within. This has been attributed to the novel Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees) where a character commits suicide in the forest.
But why should this be the case? The nature of suicide means it can't be forced upon others. Every single tragic suicide, every person who has suffered so terribly, their minds so polluted by mental illness that they'd even consider such an action has been driven to it by their own thoughts, corrupted as they doubtless are.
Having been close to that position myself, I can understand that someone can be in such a position, but be scared to speak out, or believe they can't.
Many of these "copycat suicides" have occurred in times when mental illness was even less understood (and that's saying a lot), even less talked about. So in such a context, a publicised suicide could become a kind of validation for such thoughts. As if they had granted permission.. Alternatively the suicide of an individual could plant the idea into the mind of someone susceptible when the thought might not otherwise have occurred or taken root.
What might be done
Understanding of mental illness and suicide at the moment has never been better, there are extensive provisions for those who are feeling suicidal, which simply didn't exist in the past.
As such it is possible that the copycat suicide isn't as common as it may have once been. But I feel key to stopping this in its tracks, making sure there are fewer suicides inspired by others, is to have a fundamental change in how suicides are reported.
There should be no glorification in any way of the suicide of someone who has killed themselves, certainly no sense that they are now free of their great pain, or even public celebration of their works, as it may be perceived in someone already suicidal that their death may cause them to be held in higher regard and be more loved if they were to act.
Reports of suicides should go to lengths to avoid describing the method that the individual used to kill themselves. But ultimately, greater awareness is needed in the public with regards to mental illness, suicide, and prevention. It must never be the case that someone feels they can't speak out.
But if you ever are in a suicidal position, never hesitate to call either of the following numbers.
The Suicide Lifeline phone number:
The Samaritans will listen to you, if for whatever reason nobody ever has, or you feel unheard, they will listen