© Corbis
Rows of military graves at the National Cemetery. Rates of suicide have gone up in the military.
Suicide is not a contagion, but it can sometimes spread like one, particularly with the help of the media, relationships and genes.

On Jan. 14, Department of Defense officials acknowledged that during 2012, service members committed suicide at a record pace as more than 349 people took their own lives across all of the military's four branches.

News of suicides, like these reports of suicides in the armed forces, can actually prompt people who are already emotionally vulnerable and mentally ill, to consider suicide themselves, say psychologists.

"It tends to facilitate feelings of helplessness and hopelessness," said David Rudd, Dean and professor of psychology at the University of Utah's College of Social and Behavioral Science. "It also facilitates the false idea that suicide is a solution to life's problems."

Media coverage of prominent suicides, in particular, can spark additional suicides because of all the praise that generally is heaped on the deceased, along with highlights of all their life achievements.

That, said Rudd, suggests to vulnerable people that if such an admirable person saw suicide as a good choice, perhaps it really is a good idea and could even enhance a person's significance. It becomes a distorted kind of celebrity endorsement, if you will.

"'I was insignificant in life, but I can be significant in death,'" Rudd said, expressing the potentially troubled logic of a person most vulnerable to mixed suicide messages.

This false endorsement, like that for products and services, also works if the suicide is done by friends, relative, schoolmate or coworker.

"Seeing that people similar to ourselves succeed in performing a particular type of action tends to strengthen our beliefs in our own ability to perform the same type of action," explained Peter Hedström, director of the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, Sweden.

Hedström led one of the most extensive suicide studies ever by tracking the population of Stockholm, through the 1990s. The study included 1.2 million people, of whom 1,116 committed suicide over the decade.

Among the findings in Hedström's study was that men had an increased likelihood of suicide if someone at their work had committed suicide. The same did not apply to women.

"My guess is simply that work and work-based relationships are more important for men than for women, and that that also means that men are more influenced by what goes on at work than what women are."

The much larger risk for "contracting" suicide is biological, said Rudd. Mental illnesses do have genetic components that can run in families. If one suffering family member commits suicide, others with the same illness are that much more stressed and vulnerable.

In Hedström's study this showed up especially for men, who when exposed to suicides in their families had a more than eight-fold likelihood of committing suicide themselves.

That does not mean, however, that anyone is fated by their genes to commit suicide. What it does mean is that mental illness is often going undiagnosed and untreated, Rudd said

It's treatment, that can fight the "contagion" of suicide, said Rudd. What's missing from the media message is the positive story, Rudd said. For instance, 90 percent of people who attempt suicide do get good treatment and never attempt it again, he said.

"They find a life worth living," said Rudd. "We've got to couple the (media message) with a treatment message."

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