“Παιδιά προσέξτε! Μπορεί κατά λάθος να αυτοκτονήσετε και μετά αν το μετανιώσετε δεν θα μπορείτε να κάνετε Undo!” Όταν μελετούσα Κοινωνιολογία θυμάμαι μια έρευνα (Tanney 1984) η οποία μετρούσε πάνω από 300 εκδόσεις τον χρόνο για το θέμα της αυτοκτονίας. Κάπου τον ίδιο καιρό πέρασε στην Καλιφόρνια και στην υποχρεωτική σχολική ύλη. “Να διδάξουμε στους έφηβους ότι είναι φυσιολογικό να σκέφτονται την αυτοκτονία” και ένα σωρό αντίστοιχου ύφους βοηθητικά διδακτικά υλικά. Στην μελέτη των ΜΜΕ είχε επίσης πολύ πέραση.
Και βλέπω να κυκλοφορεί ευρέως σήμερα άρθρο για τις αυτοκτονίες και τις ευθύνες των media. Ώπα γιατί με μπερδέψατε. Αν δεν αναφέρουν μια αυτοκτονία είναι “απόκρυψη της αλήθειας” ή “τα τροικανά media μας περνάνε για πρόβατα”. Αν την αναφέρουν διακριτικά “έκαναν μια ελάχιστη αναφορά, δεν ήταν επαρκής φόρος τιμής για μια ανθρώπινη ζωή”. Αν βάλουν λεπτομέρειες είναι “σιχαμένα, σκανδαλοθηρικά Μέσα που δεν ξέρουν να τηρούν τις αναλογίες.” Στο “Pathways to Suicide” το 1981 ο Diekstra έθεσε 5 πρακτικά προβλήματα σε οποιαδήποτε μελέτη που προσπαθεί να συνδέσει τον ρυθμό αυτοκτονιών με τα ΜΜΕ: 1. Υπάρχει μεγάλη χρονική διαφορά μεταξύ αίτιου και αιτιατού. 2. Πολλοί εξωτερικοί παράγοντες. 3. Η ίδια η πράξη είναι ιδιαίτερα σύνθετη (“many valued”). 4. Είναι αδύνατον να βρούμε μια συγκεκριμένη αναφορά στα media και συνήθως μιλάνε για “κλίμα που δημιουργείται από τα media”. 5. Πολλοί από τους παράγοντες στην εξίσωση είναι τελείως ανεξάρτητοι.
Εν ολίγοις, πιάσε το αυγό και κούρεψέ το. Όσοι προσπαθούν να επικεντρωθούν ειδικά στην αυτοκτονία με μιμητισμό (όπως τα πάμπολλα σχετικά δημοσιεύματα του Philips) ψάχνουν να μειώσουν αυτό το χάος βρίσκοντας περιπτώσεις πιο εμφανούς μιμητισμού. Αν για παράδειγμα κάποιος πηδήξει από γέφυρα στην Βαρυμπόμπη με άλογο μπροστά στο τραίνο και ξαφνικά σε όλη την Ελλάδα τον αντιγράψουν άλλοι δέκα με παρόμοιες αυτοκτονίες μέσα σε μια εβδομάδα θα ήταν σημαντικό γεγονός προς μελέτη. Από τους πέντε παραπάνω μεθοδολογικούς παράγοντες μειώνει σημαντικά τους αστάθμητους παράγοντες. Αλλά και πάλι δεν αποδεικνύει κάτι. Άλλος θα κατηγορήσει την τροφή των αλόγων, άλλος τα τοστ στο μπαρ του ιππικού ομίλου και άλλος το περιοδικό του Ελληνικού Ιππικού Ομίλου το οποίο είχε αφιέρωμα σε διάσημες αυτοκτονίες με άλογο. Κάνουν μια μίνι έρευνα αμέσως μετά την προβολή ενός προγράμματος και προσπαθούν να δείξουν ότι έχουν αλλάξει οι πεποιθήσεις κάποιων ομάδων πληθυσμού. (Backer, Hannon, Russel σχετικά με ένα πρόγραμμα του PBS το 1982.)
To άρθρο της Athens Voice μας ενημερώνει με στοιχεία της ΕΛΣΤΑΤ ότι ο μέσος όρος αυτοκτονιών στην Ελλάδα είναι ένας την ημέρα αλλά μετά προσθέτει ότι “Μόνο τον Ιούνιο που μας πέρασε, όμως, πενήντα άνθρωποι αυτοκτόνησαν σ’ αυτήν εδώ τη χώρα. Ο μέσος όρος πάει. Ο μέσος όρος είναι παρελθόν.” Κάνει δηλαδή ακριβώς το είδος παράλογου εκφοβισμού για εσκεμμένη πρόκληση υστερίας την οποία κατηγορεί. Γιατί δεν ξέρει αν στο τέλος του χρόνου ο μέσος όρος θα είναι ή δεν θα είναι ίδιος. Μπορεί τον Ιούλιο να πέσει δραματικά και το σύνολο να είναι ίδιο. (Επειδή ο ίδιος συνολικά αριθμός ανθρώπων που είναι επιρρεπείς στην αυτοκτονία απλά επέλεξαν διαφορετικό μήνα ή επειδή δεν έψαξε καλά την περιοδικότητα των στοιχείων της ΕΛΣΤΑΤ.)
Αν είχε κάνει τον κόπο να κάνει έρευνα αντί απλά να πακετάρει τα πορίσματα ενός βιβλίου που χάζευε στην παραλία, ο αρθρογράφος θα ήξερε ότι παγκοσμίως τον Ιούνιο υπάρχει έξαρση αυτοκτονιών (και όχι τα Χριστούγεννα που διατείνονται διάφοροι αστικοί μύθοι). Μάλιστα μερικοί διαπρεπείς Έλληνες υπογράφουν μια καλή σχετική έρευνα του φαινομένου. Αν θέλαμε να βρούμε λόγους, τα media είναι ο τελευταίος τροχός της αμάξης που πρέπει να κατηγορηθεί για το τραγικό φαινόμενο της αφαίρεσης ανθρώπινης ζωής.
Για να καταλάβετε πόσο copy – paste έπεσε στο άρθρο, ιδού ένα απόσπασμα από το βιβλίο του Gladwell:
“SUICIDE, SMOKING, AND THE SEARCH FOR THE UNSTICKY CIGARETTE
Not long ago, on the South Pacific islands of Micronesia, a seventeen-year-old boy named Sima got into an argument with his father, He was staying with his family at his grandfather’s house when his father — a stern and demanding man — ordered him out of bed early one morning and told him to find a bamboo pole-knife to harvest breadfruit. Sima spent hours in the village, looking without success for a pole- knife, and when he returned empty-handed, his father was furious. The family would now go hungry, he told his son, waving a machete in rage. “Get out of here and go find somewhere else to live.”
Sima left his grandfather’s house and walked back to his home village. Along the way he ran into his fourteen- year-old brother and borrowed a pen. Two hours later, curious about where Sima had gone, his brother went looking for him. He returned to the now empty family house and peered in the window. In the middle of a dark room, hanging slack and still from a noose, was Sima. He was dead. His suicide note read:
My life is coming to an end at this time. Now today is a day of sorrow for myself, also a day of suffering for me. But it is a day of celebration for Papa. Today Papa sent me away. Thank you for loving me so little. Sima.
Give my farewell to Mama. Mama you won’t have any more frustration or trouble from your boy. Much love from Sima.
In the early 1960s, suicide on the islands of Micronesia was almost unknown. But for reasons no one quite understands, it then began to rise, steeply and dramatically, by leaps and bounds every year, until by the end of the 1980s there were more suicides per capita in Micronesia than anvwhere else in the world. For males between fifteen and twenty-four, the suicide rate in the United States is about 22 per 100,000. In the islands of Micronesia the rate is about 160 per 100,000 — more than seven limes higher. At that level, suicide is almost commonplace, triggered by the smallest of incidents. Sima took his own life because his father yelled at him. In the midst of the Micronesian epidemic, that was hardly unusual. Teens committed suicide on the islands because they saw their girlfriends with another boy, or because their parents refused to give them a few extra dollars for beer. One nineteen-year-old hanged himself because his parents didn’t buy him a graduation gown. One seventeen-year-old hanged himself because he had been rebuked by his older brother for making too much noise. What, in Western cultures, is something rare, random, and deeply pathological, has become in Micronesia a ritual of adolescence, with its own particular rules and symbols. Virtually all suicides on the islands, in fact, are identical variations on Sima’s story. The victim is almost always male. He is in his late teens, unmarried, and living at home. The precipitating event is invariably domestic: a dispute with girlfriends or parents. In three- quarters of the cases, the victim had never tried — or even threatened — suicide before. The suicide notes tend to express not depression but a kind of wounded pride and self-pity, a protest against mistreatment. The act itself typically occurs on a weekend night, usually after a bout of drinking with friends. In all but a few cases, the victim observes the same procedure, as if there were a strict, unwritten protocol about the correct way to take one’s own life. He finds a remote spot or empty house. He takes a rope and makes a noose, but he does not suspend himself, as in a typical Western hanging. He ties the noose to a low branch or a window or a doorknob and leans forward, so that the weight of his body draws the noose tightly around his neck, cutting oil the flow of blood to the brain. Unconsciousness follows. Death results from anoxia — the shortage of blood to the brain.
In Micronesia, the anthropologist Donald Rubinstein writes, these rituals have become embedded in the local culture. As the number of suicides have grown, the idea has fed upon itself, infecting younger and younger boys, and transforming the act itself so that the unthinkable has somehow- been rendered thinkable. According to Rubinstein, who has documented the Micronesian epidemic in a series of brilliant papers,
Suicide ideation among adolescents appears widespread in certain Micronesian communities and is popularly expressed in recent songs composed locally and aired on Micronesian radio stations, and in graffiti adorning T-shirts and high school walls. A number of young boys who attempted suicide reported that they first saw or heard about it when they were 8 or 10 years old. Their suicide attempts appear in the spirit of imitative or experimental play. One 11-year-old boy, for example, hanged himself inside his house and when found he was already unconscious and his tongue protruding. He later explained that he wanted to “try” out hanging. He said that he did not want to die, although he knew he was risking death. Such cases of imitative suicide attempts by boys as young as five and six have been reported recently from Truk. Several cases of young adolescent suicide deaths recently in Micronesia were evidently the outcome of such experiments. Thus as suicide grows more frequent in these communities the idea itself acquires a certain familiarity if not fascination to young men, and the lethality of the act seems to be trivialized. Especially among some younger boys, the suicide acts appear to have acquired an experimental almost recreational element.
There is something very chilling about this passage. Suicide isn’t supposed to be trivialized like this. But the truly chilling thing about it is how familiar it all seems. Here we have a contagious epidemic of self-destruction, engaged in by youth in the spirit of experimentation, imitation, and rebellion. Here we have a mindless action that somehow, among teenagers, has become an important form of self- expression. In a strange way, the Micronesian teen suicide epidemic sounds an awful lot like the epidemic of teenage smoking in the West.
1. Teenage smoking is one of the great, baffling phenomena of modern life. No one really knows how to fight it, or even, for that matter, what it is. The principal assumption of the anti-smoking movement has been that tobacco companies persuade teens to smoke by lying to them, by making smoking sound a lot more desirable and a lot less harmful than it really is. To address that problem, then, we’ve restricted and policed cigarette advertising, so it’s a lot harder for tobacco companies to lie. We’ve raised the price of cigarettes and enforced the law against selling tobacco to minors, to try to make it much harder for teens to buy cigarettes. And we’ve run extensive public health campaigns on television and radio and in magazines to try to educate teens about the dangers of smoking.
It has become fairly obvious, however, that this approach isn’t very effective. Why do we think, for example, that the key to fighting smoking is educating people about the risks of cigarettes? Harvard University economist W. Kip Viscusi recently asked a group of smokers to guess how many years of life, on average, smoking from the age of twenty-one onward would cost them. They guessed nine years. The real answer is somewhere around six or seven. Smokers aren’t smokers because they underestimate the risks of smoking. They smoke even though they overestimate the risk of smoking. At the same time, it is not clear how effective it is to have adults tell teenagers that they shouldn’t smoke. As any parent of a teenage child will tell you, the essential contrariness of adolescents suggests that the more adults inveigh against smoking and lecture teenagers about its dangers, the more teens, paradoxically, will want to try it. Sure enough, if you look at smoking trends over the past decade or so, that is exactly what has happened. The anti-smoking movement has never been louder or more prominent. Yet all signs suggest that among the young the anti-smoking message is backfiring. Between 1993 and 1997, the number of college students who smoke jumped from 22.3 percent to 28.5 percent. Between 1991 and 1997, the number of high school students who smoke jumped 32 percent. Since 1988, in fact, the total number of teen smokers in the United States has risen an extraordinary 73 percent. There are few public health programs in recent years that have fallen as short of their mission as the war on smoking.
The lesson here is not that we should give up trying to fight cigarettes. The point is simply that the way we have tended to think about the causes of smoking doesn’t make a lot of sense. Thai’s why the epidemic of suicide in Micronesia is so interesting and potentially relevant to the smoking problem. It gives us another way of trying to come to terms with youth smoking. What if smoking, instead of following the rational principles of the marketplace, follows the same kind of mysterious and complex social rules and rituals that govern teen suicide? If smoking really is an epidemic like Micronesian suicide, how does that change the way we ought to fight the problem?
2. The central observation of those who study suicide is that, in some places and under some circumstances, the act of one person taking his or her own life can be contagious. Suicides lead to suicides. The pioneer in this field is David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, who has conducted a number of studies on suicide, each more fascinating and seemingly improbable than the last. He began by making a list of all the stories about suicide that ran on the front page of the country’s most prominent newspapers in the twenty-year stretch between the end of the 1940s and the end of the 1960s. Then he matched them up with suicide statistics from the same period. He wanted to know whether there was any relationship between the two. Sure enough, there was. Immediately after stories about suicides appeared, suicides in the area served by the newspaper jumped. In the case of national stories, the rate jumped nationally. (Marilyn Monroe’s death was followed by a temporary 12 percent increase in the national suicide rate.) Then Phillips repeated his experiment with traffic accidents. He took front-page suicide stories from the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle and matched them up with traffic fatalities from the state of California. He found the same pattern. On the day after a highly publicized suicide, the number of fatalities from traffic accidents was, on average, 5.9 percent higher than expected. Two days after a suicide story, traffic deaths rose 4.1 percent. Three days after, they rose 3.1 percent, and four days after, they rose 8.1 percent. (After ten days, the traffic fatality rate was hack to normal.) Phillips concluded that one of the ways in which people commit suicide is by deliberately crashing their cars, and that these people were just as susceptible to the contagious effects of a highly publicized suicide as were people killing themselves by more conventional means.
The kind of contagion Phillips is talking about isn’t something rational or even necessarily conscious. It’s not like a persuasive argument. It’s something much more subtle than that. “When I’m waiting at a traffic light and the light is red, sometimes I wonder whether I should cross and jaywalk,” he says. “Then somebody else does it and so I do too. It’s a kind of imitation. I’m getting permission to act from someone else who is engaging in a deviant act. Is that a conscious decision? I can’t tell. Maybe afterwards I could brood on the difference. But at the time I don’t know whether any of us knows how much of our decision is conscious and how much is unconscious. Human decisions are subtle and complicated and not very well understood.” In the case of suicide, Phillips argues, the decision by someone famous to take his or her own life has the same effect: it gives other people, particularly those vulnerable to suggestion because of immaturity or mental illness, permission to engage in a deviant act as well. “Suicide stories are a kind of natural advertisement for a particular response to your problems,” Phillips continues. “You’ve got all these people who are unhappy and have difficulty making up their minds because they are depressed. They are living with this pain. There are lots of stories advertising different kinds of responses to that. It could be that Billy Graham has a crusade going on that weekend — that’s a religious response. Or it could be that somebody is advertising an escapist movie — that’s another response. Suicide stories offer another kind of alternative.” Phillips’s permission-givers are the functional equivalent of the Salesmen I talked about in chapter 2. Just as Tom Gau could, through the persuasive force of his personality, serve as a Tipping Point in a word-of-mouth epidemic, the people who die in highly publicized suicides — whose deaths give others “permission” to die — serve as the Tipping Points in suicide epidemics.
The fascinating thing about this permission-giving, though, is how extraordinarily specific it is. In his study of motor fatalities, Phillips found a clear pattern. 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. 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 another study, a group of researchers in England in the 1960s analyzed 135 people who had been admitted to a central psychiatric hospital alter attempting suicide. They found that the group was strongly linked socially — that many of them belonged to the same social circles. This, they concluded, was not coincidence. It testified to the very essence of what suicide is, a private language between members of a common subculture. The author’s conclusion is worth quoting in full:
Many patients who attempt suicide are drawn from a section of the community in which self-aggression is generally recognized as a means of conveying a certain kind of information. Among this group the act is viewed as comprehensible and consistent with the rest of the cultural pattern…. If this is true, it follows that the individual who in particular situations, usually of distress, wishes to convey information about his difficulties to others, does not have to invent a communicational medium de novo…. The individual within the “attempted suicide subculture” can perform an act which carries a preformed meaning; all he is required to do is invoke it. The process is essentially similar to that whereby a person uses a word in a spoken language.
This is what is going on in Micronesia, only at a much more profound level. If suicide in the West is a kind of crude language, in Micronesia it has become an incredibly expressive form of communication, rich with meaning and nuance, and expressed by the most persuasive of permission-givers. Rubinstein writes of the strange pattern of suicides on the Micronesian island of Ebeye, a community of about 6,000. Between 1955 and 1965, there wasn’t a single case of suicide on the entire island. In May 1966, an eighteen-year-old boy hanged himsell in his jail cell after being arrested for stealing a bicycle, but his case seemed to have little impact. Then, in November of 1966, came the death of R., the charismatic scion of one of the island’s wealthiest lamilics. R. had been seeing two women and had fathered a one-month-old child with each of them. Unable to make up his mind between them, he hanged himself in romantic despair. At his funeral, his two lovers, learning of the existence of the other for the first time, fainted on his grave.
Three days after R.’s death, there was another suicide, a twenty-two-year-old male suffering from marital difficulties, bringing the suicide toll to two over a week in a community that had seen one suicide in the previous twelve years. The island’s medic wrote: “After R. died, many boys dreamed about him and said that he was calling them to kill themselves.” Twenty-five more suicides followed over the next twelve years, mostly in clusters of three or four over the course of a few weeks. “Several suicide victims and several who have recently attempted suicide reported having a vision in which a boat containing all the past victims circles the island with the deceased inviting the potential victims to join them,” a visiting anthropologist wrote in 1975. Over and over again, the themes outlined by R. resurfaced. Here is the suicide note of M., a high school student who had one girlfriend at boarding school and one girlfriend on Ebeye, and when the first girlfriend returned home from school, two girlfriends at once — a complication defined, in the youth subculture of Ebeye, as grounds for taking one’s own life: “Best wishes to M. and C. [the two girlfriends]. It’s been nice to be with both of you.” That’s all he had to say, because the context for his act had already been created by R. In the Ebeye epidemic, H. was the Tipping Person, the Salesman, the one whose experience “overwrote” the experience of those who followed him. The power of his personality and the circumstances of his death combined to make the force of his example endure years beyond his death.”