Just two months after Chris Cornell’s suicide and on his birthday, Cornell’s close friend Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington took his life. Immediate reactions on social media from those close to both men as well as from fans indicated shock and sadness at another tragic loss. When I first read that Bennington had died the cause wasn’t yet reported but my first thought was that perhaps the 41-year-old had died by suicide like his friend. As a psychologist and Board Member of the NC Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), I have long been aware of the risk people encounter in the time following the suicide death of a loved one and have worked with affected families, friends, schools and faith organizations to mitigate these risks.
Why Are People At Risk Following A Suicide?
Suicide contagion is the phenomenon of exposure to suicide leading to increased suicidal thoughts and actions in others. The closer relationship you have with the person who died by suicide, the more likely you are to experience suicide contagion. Extensive media coverage and explicit reporting about a death can also create suicide contagion. This does not mean that every person who loses someone to suicide is going to become suicidal themselves. Individuals who are already struggling with suicidal urges or mental health or substance abuse issues are at greater risk.
Could Chester Bennington’s Death Be Related To Suicide Contagion?
Suicide is very complex and can’t easily be explained by a simple or single answer. The human mind naturally wants to know “Why?” when something this tragic and shocking occurs. There were likely many factors that contributed to Chester Bennington’s death and his family and friends may try to piece those factors together to get as much understanding as they can. It’s conceivable that one factor may have been suicide contagion.Bennington’s death two months after Cornell, on Cornell’s birthday and using the same method are possible links between these two suicides. Chester Bennington had a history of drug and alcohol addiction which increases his risk of suicide contagion. His lyrics with Linkin Park were often dark in nature and he talked openly about how many of the lyrics were self-expression suggesting that he may have had a tendency towards heavier emotions.
How Can We Protect Our Loved Ones From Suicide Contagion?
Suicide contagion is relatively rare with estimates that it factors into 1-5% of the nearly 45,000 suicides in the United States annually. Even with a low rate of occurrence, taking appropriate steps after a suicide can save lives.
1. Identify Those Most at Risk
Individuals with a mental health or substance abuse issue or history, with a history of suicidal thoughts or behavior, who had a close relationship with the deceased, who witnessed the suicide, who received communication forewarning of the suicide, and those who had a conflict with the deceased prior to their death are most at risk. If someone you know is at risk or appears to be struggling, talk to them about their feelings in a calm, nonjudgmental, and supportive manner. Ask directly if they are feeling suicidal and seek professional help immediately if they are.
2. Don’t Glorify or Romanticize Suicide
Suicide is not a solution. Avoid talking about suicide as a viable option or a way to escape pain and problems. Don’t discuss the manner of death graphically or focus at length on it in conversations. Instead, focus on healthy ways of coping. Honor and memorialize the lost loved one in the same way you would honor anyone else that has died, not in a way that is more glamorized or special.
3. Seek Professional Support
Working with a mental health professional familiar with grief after a suicide can provide support and promote healthy processing of the loss. AFSP has a list of clinicians who are familiar with issues that arrive in suicide bereavement and there are others mental health professionals as well throughout the country.
4. Support Groups
Support groups can be a helpful resource for connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss and want to find a path towards healing.
5. Get Involved
Many suicide loss survivors have found hope and a sense of meaning by getting involved in suicide awareness, prevention, advocacy, and education opportunities. There are also opportunities to volunteer or participate in an awareness or fundraising activity such as the AFSP Out of the Darkness Walks. Engaging in the fight against suicide for some survivors creates a sense of empowerment and can become a healthy way of honoring their loved one.
Chester Bennington’s death is a tragedy for his family and friends and the world of music. We may never fully understand all of the factors that contributed to his suicide but his death does bring attention to the risk of suicide contagion.
If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, support is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or by texting “TALK” to 741-741. Additional resources and information are available through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.