relevance of suicide contagion

Despite the many massive and immediately obvious differences between the two, I think suicide contagion and how that spreads is relevant to discussions of social contagion as a trigger for transition. Both are drastic strategies generally employed, at least in part, as an attempt to alleviate acute dissatisfaction with one’s life. I struggled with a drive to commit suicide for a long time and still have issues with suicidal ideation at times. My transition was motivated in part by my belief that it would make me less suicidal.

In terms of suicide contagion, the role of preexisting vulnerabilities is acknowledged as a necessary causal factor for suicide contagion to impact someone. In terms of suicide contagion, it’s not just like it’s actually just a result of seeing something on tv or whatever. What happens is that seeing suicide discussed in certain ways can function as a trigger event for life-ending self harm behavior, in the context of someone’s current situation.

While transition is not inherently life-ending by any means, the rise in incidence as its presence on mainstream and social media rises indicates that social contagion is probably a factor at play here. Here’s some further thoughts on that.

Another similar feature is the possibility of “mass clusters” of suicides, as well as “point clusters” of suicides occurring on a smaller scale. These are patterns that many of us have seen with transition.

Two general types of suicide cluster have been discussed in the literature; roughly, these can be classified as mass clusters and point clusters. Mass clusters are media related, and the evidence for them is equivocal; point clusters are local phenomena, and these do appear to occur. Contagion has not been conceptually well developed nor empirically well supported as an explanation for suicide clusters. An alternative explanation for why suicides sometimes cluster is articulated: People who are vulnerable to suicide may cluster well before the occurrence of any overt suicidal stimulus, and when they experience severe negative events, including but not limited to the suicidal behavior of one member of the cluster, all members of the cluster are at increased risk for suicidality (a risk that may be offset by good social support).
On a local scale, many of us involved in trans community have watched “point cluster”-structured explosions of transition within a social group happen right in front of us. I know I’ve watched friend groups go from having a couple trans people to entirely trans-identified, online many times and once in person. This also appears to be occurring on a “mass cluster”-like scale… here’s a graphic an online news site posted in an article speaking positively about transition, showing the rise in referrals to the only clinic in England handling pediatric transition.

If you view transition as exclusively positive, this rise in its incidence is a good thing. As someone who experienced transition as an effort to medically “correct” me as an underage traumatized butch lesbian with a learning disability, though, I have a hard time believing that no one else is going to be hurt by this. I sought transition because I could see no other way to move forward. Have all 1,398 of these children and adolescents been made aware of other ways to cope with these feelings, involving fewer medical risks and no ongoing reliance on synthetic hormones? Were their struggles all seen and respected before they pursued transition? Are they all cognitively developed enough to make fully educated choices when it comes to decisions that may affect their bodies in huge ways for the rest of their lives? I doubt this very much.
Anyways- here’s the aspects of media reporting that the CDC cites as contributing to suicide contagion.

  • Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide
  • Providing sensational coverage of suicide
  • Reporting “how-to” descriptions of suicide
  • Presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends
  • Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide
  • Focusing on the suicide completer’s positive characteristics
As a thought experiment, replace “suicide” with “transition” in each of these “don’ts”. Does that not describe how transition is frequently discussed, both intercommunity and to an increasing degree, even in media outside the community?

Obviously there’s a ton of media against transition, too… but everyone in the world is also saturated with media that (in terms of explicit messages, if not how it treats people struggling) generally discourages suicide (in a range of ways with very diverse levels of empathy and potential helpfulness to a suicidal person). In light of that, I don’t think the existence of a shit ton of trans-people-hating media wholly invalidates the comparison.

Another important note: suicide contagion is generally seen as most likely to occur when a vulnerable population feels they have a lot in common with the deceased. I feel that this fits the patterns I’ve seen in trans communities- people seem more likely to consider transition when someone who they previously viewed as “the same” as them begins transition. For example, I know several butch women who have talked about transition spreading through friend groups formerly composed exclusively of women who knew themselves as butch lesbians.

Here’s something else about suicide contagion: there are community responses that can mitigate its impact. In terms of suicide, the focus is fully on prevention. This isn’t directly analogous to transition; I don’t think the focus should truly be to prevent transition. For one thing, this would imply a lack of support for those who have already transitioned, a group I’m visibly a part of. As long as transition is available, some of us will choose it, and that doesn’t mean they’re any less human or deserving of support. Withdrawing support upon transition also makes it less likely for individuals to feel that stopping transition is an option.

However, I do feel that efforts should be made to communicate that transition is not the only option when it comes to coping with a drive to transition. This isn’t common knowledge. Support for women coping with rejection related to gender noncompliance, alienation from their bodies, distress at being seen as female, and other experiences often coded as inherently trans should be widely available, whether or not those experiences are a part of a trans identity for the individual suffering. These are female experiences and should be decoupled from transition narratives to a higher degree, while still allowing trans individuals to recognize them as a part of their stories. Resources on all of the different ways different individuals have managed to handle what would be diagnosed as GID or gender dysphoria,¬†without further reliance on medical intervention, should be broadly available, especially in communities where a reduction of social restraints on transition has taken place.

If transition is supposed to be a choice, there have got to be other options. Doing something because you believe it’s the only way to avoid eventually killing yourself isn’t really the same as making a free choice. Whether it helps you or not, medical transition exposes you to a shit ton of risk. There are lower risk options that, for many of us, worked an awful lot better.

Would point clusters of transition occur with the same frequency if sensitive, unbiased support systems that acknowledged these feelings do not inherently necessitate transition, were made available to those struggling? Would mass clusters? I don’t know for sure. It’s worth noting that, in the year I’ve spent in detransition/reconciling community, I’ve never seen a bunch of us return to a trans identity at once. This has been true (as far as I’ve seen) even though some individuals do return to transition, and everyone in these circles has previously considered herself trans in some way.

I believe our resilience to intercommunity transition spikes is heightened in this community because, by virtue of being connected to each other, we can freely process the way it makes us feel when someone we feel we have a lot in common with returns to a coping mechanism that we know has done us harm. Naming our feelings and working with each other to identify ways to move forward probably makes us less likely to rely on objectively higher-risk strategies. This is not something that many women have, but I feel that it’s something all women deserve (to the extent that they can participate without harming others). We can’t find out if anyone would choose transition freely until everyone knows it’s not their only option.


One thought on “relevance of suicide contagion

  1. Thank you for this article. It discusses some ideas I’ve had floating around in the back of my head for a while now, but not really known how to put into words. This is such an important discussion to have, and you wrote about it in a very thoughtful, intelligent, and compassionate way.


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