Is Suicide Contagious

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The term “suicide contagion” gets thrown around a lot in academic papers and media headlines, but what does it actually mean? The term suggests that suicidal ideation is something you can catch, but the reality is much more complicated. This week, we navigate the complexities of suicide clusters from the heart of Silicon Valley, California to the soul of Cowboy Strong, Wyoming.


Season 2 of Last Day is created in partnership with The Jed Foundation. The Jed Foundation (JED) empowers teens and young adults with the skills and support to grow into healthy, thriving adults. You can find tips, tools and resources for taking care of your emotional health available at:


Resources from the episode:


If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or feeling hopeless, it’s important to talk to someone about it now. Contact one of the resources below for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor anytime.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text line: Text “Connect” to 741-741

The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386


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Speaker 7, Speaker 2, Speaker 3, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Lisa Hao, Speaker 4, Speaker 5, Speaker 6, Katie Ellison

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  00:00

Before we begin, I want to encourage you to go back and listen to season two from the start. If you have not done so already, it will make a lot more sense moving forward. We’ve also worked hard to ensure that our storytelling around suicide is as safe as possible. But we cannot address this issue by tiptoeing around it. Instead of warning, who should and shouldn’t listen before each episode. We want to encourage you to listen and press pause if and when you need to. We’ll be here when you’re ready to press play.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

You know when a beloved celebrity dies unexpectedly before their time, and the headlines start to quickly pile up and take over social media. But there’s no real story yet. No details, no explanation, just a clickable headline with a bunch of photos, celebrity dead at 48, 32, 24 whatever. And in the absence of any real information, a question inevitably arises. Was it an overdose, or a suicide? Unfortunately, I am acutely aware of what it’s like when the answer is overdose. Please refer to season one for that story. But when the answer is suicide, how the story is told matters?

Speaker 2

Well, for so long, there has been caution around public discussion of suicide.

Speaker 3

We’re asking the news media to think a little harder by reporting it, they could be perpetuating the story.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

We touched on this in episode one. But if media gets the message wrong, and that wrong message reaches a struggling person at the wrong time, the consequences can be devastating, even fatal. For example, in 2014, after beloved comedian actor Robin Williams died by apparent suicide, and that shocking news flooded the headlines. suicide rates went up by 10%. This detail got repeated after another prominent suicide death.

Speaker 3

Well known designer Kate Spade was found dead in her apartment today her death and apparent suicide.

Speaker 4

We saw after Robin Williams suicide rates went up 10% we know Kate Spade reportedly was infatuated with his suicide.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  02:22

Which became part of another subsequent suicide.

Speaker 5

We learned today we lost a friend and colleague Anthony Bourdain. Anthony is the second public figure to die this way. This week, Kate Spade was the first, some experts point to a phenomenon they call suicide contagion, which often happens in moments such as this.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

And it turns out there is a long historical precedent for this. There’s this phenomenon called the Werther effect. Stick with me, this won’t take long. It is a fancy literary version of the outdated term copycat suicide. And it comes from this 1774 Goethe Novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther, the book spoiler alert, ends with a sympathetic hero, or they’re dressed in a blue coat, and yellow trousers, shooting himself after being rejected by someone he loved. In the years that followed, so many young men were found dead having shot themselves well dressed as Werther, that people freaked out and banned the book in several countries. In 1962, when Marilyn Monroe died, the following months were filled with extensive coverage about her apparent suicide, which led to widespread sorrow and an apparent 12% uptick in suicides. These are obviously massive national reactions to the loss of our beloved heroes and icons.

But you see the same thing happening in communities or someone dies by suicide. All of a sudden, you have to worry about the other people in town, or the kids in the schools. And that brings us to this very complicated question. Is suicide contagious? This question, of course, has been plaguing us this whole project, not just because we’re talking about suicide, but also if you didn’t know we are doing it in the midst of a global pandemic, where community spread is all we’re talking about. So, is it as simple as that? is suicide something you can catch? And if so, how do we protect ourselves? Like what’s the equivalent of a mask for suicide? I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs and this is LAST DAY.


We knew early on that we wanted to talk about contagion. But truth be told, we didn’t totally get what it meant for suicidal thoughts to transfer. Is it like, flipping a switch? Not suicidal. One moment, suicidal the next. And that’s how we were thinking about it. Until we heard this.

Lisa Hao

Every morning, I wake up and I make an agenda for the day. I love plans. I love knowing my options. And in sixth grade, when the first suicide cluster happened in my community, when we lost more than three people in one year, it was the first time that suicide became on my list of options when I was going through a problem. If I was feeling sad one day, I think through what the options were, I think about napping, I think about hanging on the friends. I thought about taking my own life. I thought about going out. It was on my list of what I could potentially do to help figure it out and solve it.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  06:02

This is Lisa Hao, speaking at a JED event a few years ago. And when we watch this video, something clicked. We knew we had to talk to her.

Speaker 6

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Like Who are you? Who is Lisa?

Lisa Hao

Yeah, so that’s such a hard question sometimes to answer.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

It makes sense that this is a tricky question for Lisa, because a lot has changed in a short period of time. Today, Lisa is 22. And she just graduated from college, she’s about to start a very impressive job as an engineer at a little-known company called Apple. But in sixth grade, she was in a very different place at the center of what is probably the most commonly referenced example of suicide contagion. Lisa was a student at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. A school that comes up again and again, when you start to dig into the concept of suicide contagion. One of the reasons it got so much attention because this school is situated in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. If you look it up on a map, you literally see the Google headquarters on one side of the school and the Tesla headquarters on the other. So of course, there was a lot of speculation about what was driving the children of CEO’s to suicide. But what was it actually like for the kids who were at the epicenter going to school every day? Well, let’s start at the beginning. Before the first death, when Lisa was in middle school,

Lisa Hao

My mom was very busy. It used to be like constant noise and constant battling for attention in my mind, and I would have to constantly try to counteract any negative dangerous suicidal ideation, thoughts with very trivial things. Like I feel like I was a huge gossip in middle school in high school, just because spending time thinking about other people in drama was, was easier than spending time thinking about my own struggles, my own worth my own decision that I felt so desperate to have to make.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  08:13

Lisa is uniquely self-reflective about all of this. I mean, what is more normal than being consumed with middle school drama, right. But looking back, Lisa has connected her preoccupation with preteen bullshit, to the very real shit she was trying to push down.

Lisa Hao

I feel like that coupled with feeling really depressed and really sad all the time, made for like a mix of just constant emotions and constant conversation and constant murmurings in my mind,

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

that murmuring that she describes, it was pretty quiet. At first, Lisa says she wasn’t especially tortured as a young kid. But things got a lot louder in the sixth grade.

Lisa Hao  09:01

So, the first like cluster, fitting the textbook definition was when my sister was in 11th grade, and I was in sixth grade. And then a second cluster, which I guess they call it an echo cluster. And this barely happens when a cluster hits the same community. But that was when I was in 11th grade.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Before we go any further with this, let’s break down those terms really quick. So, a cluster refers to a string of suicide deaths, typically three or more. That happened in the wake of a suicide. The patterns we talked about up top, after a celebrity death, those are suicide clusters too. If it happens around the same time, and the same place, that’s called a point cluster. These are rare. If another string of suicide death occur again, around the same time in the same place that is an echo cluster. And like Lisa said, that is very rare. So, here Lisa is at the center of this really rare, really devastating thing at two of the most formative tumultuous times of being a kid, sixth and 11th grade. I mean, I don’t know if you remember this time in your life, I tried to block mine out. But from personal experience, I was dealing with my own drama at every moment. And I cannot imagine how it could have wrapped my own very busy brain around anything like this. The first suicide in their community was a guy named JP. And he was a close friend of Lisa’s sister. So, it hit really close to home.

Lisa Hao  10:39

I feel like watching your older sibling, deal with the grief, and also being in sixth grade and not really having an idea of what’s going on. But knowing like the whole town’s buzzing and worried with what’s going to happen, and you know, we had multiple students passed away that year. So, I feel like when that started, there used to be a lot of conversations with friends about what was happening. And then it just became more of a of a thing. And I feel like at that age for me, I feel like in general, like thinking back then or no, like stories about like sixth graders, like you kind of struggle with feeling secure, and you’re trying to figure out your identity you’re trying to deal with going to a new school, where you meet all these new people from different elementary schools and figure out who you are, that a large part of it at that stage of my suicidal ideation was very focused around like, how much attention could I get from doing something like this? Like, Will people miss me? Will people like Will it be forever memorialized in people’s mind? Like, it’s such a tragic loss of a young person. It’s like, it’s so tragic. That’s almost like beautifully tragic.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  11:49

JP died, students at Gunn High School spread rose petals all around the school. I mean, what is more textbook beautiful than rose petals, and it came from a good place. But for a depressed teen, it also looked like a bright, shiny object.

Lisa Hao

Being in sixth grade, and seeing the outpour of love for someone, you know, and it was just so glamorized. And I think that’s the hard part with suicide in general, it’s that constant struggle between like contagion, but also recognizing that we did lose someone in our community, we did lose someone that’s very loved.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Of course, I mean, this is an impossible balance. On the one hand, it is so deeply shocking and tragic to lose any young person, and celebrating their life is warranted. And it’s part of how we typically work through this kind of grief. But it can also be a driving factor of contagion. Just the fact that an entire community is collectively talking about suicide is itself a risk factor. And to make matters worse, the way JP died, was central to the story. And I am flagging that I’m about to break a rule here because it is an important part of the story. So, JP died on the tracks of the Caltrain. It’s a commuter rail line that runs through town. And even as a sixth grader, Lisa did not miss this detail.

Lisa Hao  13:29

I was just aware that this is a thing. I feel like I just had some friends where when things would come up, we would talk and they would just come up as like, oh, maybe we should go to the tracks or do that tonight. Or you know, I don’t even think I don’t even think there was that much like serious thought put behind it. But it was just like, similar to I don’t like something else you watch and hear about knowing Oh, like, interesting idea.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

The Caltrain runs every 20 minutes, and announces itself with a bell. So, the interesting idea came up again, and again, and again and again and again, all day, every day.

Lisa Hao

It’s a pretty easy thing in our community, due to how much the train runs through the town. And, you know, and how accessible these means are. That when it did become the point where I felt like life was going out of control is easy to snatch it back by being like, well, if it gets too out of control, here’s one thing that I can do.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  14:34

Lisa wasn’t the only one who took this in. In the year after JP’s death four more Palo Alto teens died the same way at the same location. As the situation got scarier and scarier, closer and closer to home. Nobody knew what to do, especially the parents.

Lisa Hao

They definitely didn’t respond great to when my sister lost her friend. It’s hard to understand I think especially both of them came from China. And although my mom has stories of when she really struggled and like, would go into work and cry all day, and like definitely things that look like she dealt with depression, it’s just not a thing that they really talk about or, or address growing up. So, it’s hard for them to come here and relate to what it’s like to struggle so much and have these words to describe it, because it’s not the same words that they used growing up to describe what was going on.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  15:31

Lisa felt like she was on a deserted island, all alone with her feelings. And this wasn’t just because her parents didn’t feel comfortable talking about mental health. Things were already tense at home.

Lisa Hao

There’s like this thing that happened in my family where essentially, I feel like growing up like every now and then we get spanked a little bit. And when I told when my friends my friends got very alarmed, like that is abuse, like that is horrible.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  16:01

Lisa was surprised by her friends reactions. She’d never questioned it. Me. She told us it wasn’t anything too serious. But she reported it to the school. And things escalated very quickly.

Lisa Hao

What ended up happening was, my entire family was very upset that I wouldn’t report it and that, you know, like, I thought I was doing a good thing. I think the backlash was like, why would you involve other people like you should just talk to us? Why would you involve like your counselor, and then they all obviously have to escalate it to CPS. And so, it’s just like this big thing that made me really question. It’s just like kind of nerve racking when you think you’re going doing good thing and you get treated like you do this awful betrayal. And I think because of that, I made it starting sixth grade and made it really difficult than to open up to my family. I think that kind of started this feeling of like, I don’t know if I have people that care.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

This whole experience made her start to question herself, her grasp on reality. A couple years past, her thoughts grew darker. But she continued to worry that maybe she was overreacting.

Lisa Hao  17:15

Well, I feel like for me, like I was really depressed for a while, like I, I invalidate myself all the time, I think about the time period, because it’s hard to think back and be like, and relate to that headspace. I think even when you’re in a headspace of suicidal ideation, the days you feel good. It’s so hard to not invalidate that. You didn’t feel that good. Even minutes before and so I like oh, it’s just super tragic. No, I’m fine.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

This cycle went on for years. Lisa makes it through middle school and goes on to Gunn High School. Cut to 2014 her junior year. When everything starts up again. Here’s more from Lisa’s JED talk.

Lisa Hao  18:02

In 11th grade, I came into my AP US history class. And my teacher came up to the classroom with a piece of paper. The mood was a little off. He’s normally very fun. And today he was very somber. He proceeded to read out the paper. Throughout reading out the paper, he mentioned that someone in our class passed away. And so, we all looked around the room trying to figure out if anyone else had any idea what was going on, before he finally revealed that that person was my friend Cameron. After that, I think my body reacted faster than my mind realize what happened. I burst into tears, ran outside. joined a lot of my other friends who are all confused and sad and unsure what to do next.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  19:01

You lost your close friend Cameron. Can you talk about him? What was he like?

Lisa Hao

Yeah. When someone passes away like that you’re searching for answers constantly. I feel like I pored through all my texts I had with him I posted on my Facebook messages we had his parents came out and says like Carmen dealt with depression and you know, but I think as a friend like I never saw that. And so it was very tough for me to understand what happened especially I held on to like a lot of anger after he passed away because he was so unforgiving when I was super depressed and emotional like I remember clearly like one time I was crying just because like I always had these things where I called them episodes where I just felt so much pent up pain that I just would crying for no reason. And like nothing to start it just like I just need a release somehow. had that one time. And I just remember talking people be like, oh my gosh, Lisa is so dramatic like she’s so emotional all the time.


And so, for me to find out later that he might have been dealing with similar feelings of pain and similar anguish, and was so unforgiving to me, like it just made didn’t make a lot of sense. Like you couldn’t have empathized when apparently, this was something that you also dealt, you know, we could have been there for each other maybe. But also, that feeling of like, now, I very accurately see how painful it is for everyone else. Like it really felt like he took all the pain he was feeling and just distribute it to the rest of us. And so, it just became like a more intense internal battle of like, how could I do that, again, to these people I love. But it also showed me like how easy it could be, and how the fact that was possible. And like this hypothetical I’ve been thinking about for so long. It’s no longer just a hypothetical, like someone made it a reality for themselves.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Okay, this is where things get really dangerous from a contagion standpoint. But it’s also where we really need to just pull apart the term contagion, and really just throw out our comparison to COVID altogether, because unlike a virus, which can affect anyone, Lisa is so critically vulnerable here because she was already dealing with persistent negative thoughts. This is why we started with her JED Talk. There was already a list of coping mechanisms, the moment suicide was added to the list is where she became at risk. The moment Cameron died, that risk elevated dramatically.

Lisa Hao  21:53

There’s this almost relief that comes when that becomes an option, because you’re able, even if everything else, it feels so out of whack, and so going, like going so fast, and you have all these different assignments are like friend drama or family things, there’s at least something you can control. All in or all out was like a huge, resoundingly mantra question, decision that I was consumed by, do I go or do I stay kind of feeling?

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

If all of this wasn’t enough, the story of Cams death made national headlines, which also happened after the first cluster. But that was before the rise of social media. This time, it felt like the entire world was looking at them.


Palo Alto, California, houses here sell for millions, the high schools are top notch. But the limitless potential of Palo Alto projects has another side.

Speaker 3

We know there’s a lot of pressure on kids, there’s so much research, talking about the pressures that elite kids are facing these days, and research that, frankly, is hard to sympathize with.

Lisa Hao

It just paints a very one note picture of like, everyone here is this high achieving robot who only cares about their grades and only cares about the schools they get into and only cares about this very one-dimensional definition of success, just like a poor picture of how you would want to think of yourself in the first place. But there is some threads of truth in that, you know, I think even if people aren’t explicitly saying that you need to do the same thing. There is that vibe of like, you look around, like my friends. This friend’s parents like CEO of that thing, or this friend’s parents, is a professor here.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  23:37

The media story was rich kids pressure kills. And like Lisa said, there is some truth to that narrative. But there’s more to it. After the break a different woman in a different place. What a suicide cluster looks like from the adults perspective.

Katie Ellison

I have to tell you that in 2013, that spring, for me was the darkest time.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

This is Katie Ellison. That spring of 2013. She was working as a Student Assistance coordinator for the Campbell County School District in Gillette, Wyoming. This is when everything changed.

Katie Ellison

Our district experienced the suicide death of 15 current and former students under the age of 20, from 2011 until I left in 2017. And that’s in addition to the multitude of adult suicides that our community experienced during that time period, and so I took on the role of guiding our district through adapting a suicide prevention, intervention and postvention policy and procedures, training school staff to recognize the warning signs and risk factors for suicide and how to get people access to help.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

As one might imagine, Wyoming is a very different beast than Silicon Valley. First off, the Palo Alto story gets a lot of buzz because it was such an outlier. The teens there were dying at a rate that was far above the state average. California is number 46 in the country for suicide deaths. But according to the most recent numbers from the CDC, Wyoming has the highest per capita rate of suicide in the United States. We asked Katie to tell us a little bit about her corner of the cowboy state, which is literally its nickname. And if you look at any tourism site, a little cowboy riding a bull is embedded into the logo.

Katie Ellison  26:03

Wyoming is well the saying cowboy strong is kind of one of their mottos, you know, you cowboy up. Not only was the cowboy, the only State University’s mascot, but it very much meant that we were proud of our individualization that we were rugged, that we were people put your pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and proud of it. A lot of you know those good old, hardworking men who you don’t go to the doctor unless you’ve cut off a limb and you’re bleeding out type. Rugged, tough people and so and proud and proud, just proud people.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

My dad is certainly no cowboy. But I am familiar with the type of guy who’d rather swim with sharks than go for a routine checkup. It’s safe to say that this community wasn’t talking about mental health and self-care. So, in 2011, when an 18-year-old wrestling champ died by suicide, it hit the town hard.

Katie Ellison

He was a young man who was a leader in his class. He was student body president. He was a star athlete, captain of the team.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

And he was getting ready to wrestle at the junior national tournament in Virginia. But the deal was that he had to pass all his classes in order to go. But the day before he died, his parents received a call from a teacher saying that he wasn’t passing an ACT prep course.

Katie Ellison

And that kind of erupted for him. And what I understand is that he had access to a firearm in his home. And after his dad left, he ended his life in his bedroom.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Quick note, guns play a significant role in this story. Just like the Caltrain, we have a lethal form of means that was readily available to everyone in town. It’s notable that Wyoming has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the country. According to a recent report, nearly 54% of residents have access to a firearm. And often it’s more than just one.

Katie Ellison  28:19

People live in homes where they have entire rooms that store their guns.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

I’m not telling you this to start a fight about the Second Amendment. It’s just important because when you look at all the gun deaths in Wyoming, 86% of them are suicides. That’s compared to the national average, which is closer to 50%. But the residents weren’t thinking about any of this. They were just reeling from the sudden loss of the star student.

Katie Ellison  28:51

The initial response was, how could this happen? How could some How could a young person you know it’s shock? How could a young person with so much going for him so much potential? So many gifts and talents? How could this have possibly happened?

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Here is the thing that proves to be very hard for us to wrap our heads around time and time again, two things can be true. At the same time. The rate of suicide is rising and it is disproportionately high in Wyoming. But it’s still not a common event. And you don’t know if you’re part of a statistic until well, you’re part of a statistic. So, everyone was shocked and truly did not know how to respond.

Katie Ellison

In the school community. I think we were I felt it My experience was feeling like we were caught on our heels. Not quite knowing what the safe and appropriate responses within the school community were. I felt like we had to 24 hours to figure it out before kids came back on Monday morning of how we’re going to support them. I felt like we were reading the books, the manuals on how to how to do this. As we were trying to respond to this crisis and provide supports for students.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  30:19

But Katie also witnessed the same sort of problematic memorialization that Lisa described. She completely understood the motivation, but was immediately concerned when she saw people driving around with stickers on their car windows, commemorating him.

Katie Ellison

There was a risk to other young people who are already struggling with thoughts of suicide. When a community’s collective response is, well glamorizing a suicide death, and how they react, you know, we’re already talking about young minds that aren’t fully, you know, that pre formed frontal cortex isn’t fully developed, and there, they can tend to be impulsive. They don’t think things through and if someone is already contemplating suicide, or dancing with those depressive thoughts, seeing a community respond with stickers on clings to the back of the cars, celebrating the suicide death of a young person might just encourage another young person of wow they’ll really miss me when I’m gone.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Based on Lisa’s retelling, along with a lot of data, I think this is a real thing.

Katie Ellison

There were not enough messages to counterbalance the glorification of suicide with there is hope. There are resources for help. Here’s how you can access the resources. Granted people cared and people were concerned about students. But I don’t know that we were ready to respond with that type of messaging, when it happened.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  32:04

But this was just the beginning. A year later, a 17-year-old football player died, again by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. And with every death, Katie tried to follow best practices in the face of a lot of resistance.

Katie Ellison  32:23

When we were having the contagion effect, and we were getting to the third and fourth young man who died by suicide, parents were scared and parents were upset, what is the school doing? Why aren’t you stopping this? You know, why aren’t? Why aren’t you preventing it? And why aren’t you doing more? parents would call with an idea of how we should respond or what we could do to respond to put a stop to it that didn’t fall within the recommended safe guidelines for responding. And you’d have to tell them no, and you’d have to try to explain and educate. You know why we can’t do that why that’s not a safe or appropriate response to preventing suicide. But they’d be angry that you would tell them no, because it for them, it was counterintuitive.

Katie Ellison

I recognize now with hindsight that I had vicarious trauma from that experience, I cried a lot. I felt helpless. I felt hopeless to make it stop. I would. I made a lot of professional contacts and resources in the Suicide Prevention world. And I would call up those people that I considered my mentors and my experts. And I would ask them, what am I doing wrong? What are we doing wrong? What aren’t we doing? What isn’t the answer we have, but we brought in national experts, we consulted with national experts. You know, what, what are we missing? Why is this still happening?

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

These are all the same questions they were asking in Palo Alto. And some of the answers were the same. But if there’s one thing we know from our current battle against an actual contagious virus, it’s that it’s much harder to implement safeguards once an  “outbreak” is out of hand. But that didn’t matter to this community. They wanted to stop losing their kids. So, it was Katie’s turn to cowboy up.

Katie Ellison  34:22

The staff and the students in that building needed us to show up. They needed us to be there for them so you put on your game face and you go when you do your job. And you role model you model for others that this can suck. This is really hard. But here’s how you take care of yourself. Here’s how you deal with it. Here’s how you reach out for help for yourself. You get yourself into therapy. If you need to take medicine, you take medicine.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  34:58

Katie was modeling psychological resilience in the best way possible. She was being honest and authentic. It wasn’t about toxic positivity or just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It was really fucking hard. And she acknowledged that.

Katie Ellison

It was for me personally, over the course of the six years, I was exhausted at the end of it.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

This, I mean, it just sounds so intense that six years I can feel like viscerally what you’re saying. It’s very intense and painful. Like, especially from what I know about your own history. And how in your email to us, you know, you talked about feeling shameful about your own depression and suicide attempt for pretty much half of your life. Can you can you talk about that a little bit?

Katie Ellison

Yeah. I hope it’s okay. If I cry because it can feel like a good cry.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  36:00

If you don’t cry. You’re not allowed to stay on the call? No, of course, it’s okay. Yep, there it is. You may have already seen this coming. But once upon a time, Katie was very much like Lisa. After the break, we look at their stories side by side.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

We’re back.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

For the break, I asked Katie about her own history with depression and suicidal ideation, which she wrote to us about. And like Lisa, it started in our teens. throughout high school and into her first year of college, Katie struggled with serious depression, but rejected the idea that it was serious. She went on and off meds, she was drinking a lot. It was a dark time.

Katie Ellison

I spent a lot of years angry, angry at God angry at myself, self-loathing, a lot of self-hatred. And by that October, I can no longer function without perseverating thoughts of, I really wish something bad would happen. So, I would have to leave school. So that my circumstances would change. I would perseverate on thoughts of crashing my car, I would perseverate on thoughts of what if I went to sleep and never woke up.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Which brings us back to Lisa, who at 16, lost a very close friend, and was also in a very, very dark place.

Lisa Hao 

Cam passed away on November 4, I think it wasn’t until March or April or around then that this decision just felt like all consuming, exhausting daily battle.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

She was still grappling with that ever-present mantra. All in or all out.

Lisa Hao  38:05

All in feels very elusive. Like who knows if we’ll ever get to the point where I feel that about life like it feels like it’s something that will happen to me rather than something I can do. And then all out felt very deliberate and very, like, here’s a choice that I can choose. One is one option is like who knows one of those that happen and the other option is very like decisive definite. If I choose that, it’s, it’s the last choice I’ll make.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  38:33

God, this is a lot for a 16-year-old brain, or any brain. Lisa had been fixated on this question since the sixth grade. And as she matured, so did our motives.

Lisa Hao

I think it gets even more dangerous when you stop caring about how people will perceive your passing like I when I was younger, I used to be very like, I hope they would really care and I really want them to miss me. I hope this is a big outpouring of love. And then as I got more severe became very much like, I would hate it if anyone cared. That would make me feel horrible. I would just like I just wish no one cared about me anymore. This makes it a lot easier. But now I have all these conflicting interests and I don’t know how to be truly selfish in this decision anymore.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Like Lisa, Katie’s dark thoughts became more all-consuming more life threatening. As time went on.

Katie Ellison

It came to a crescendo the day, I attempted suicide. It was a Monday it was actually September 14 1988. And I had had a phone call with a young man who I had had a longtime crush on and I realized in the course of that conversation that he was never going to pick me. And it wasn’t about him. It was about how I felt about myself and how I experienced myself and I had access to somebody lethal means in my apartment. And I use them. I wrote a note. And I admit, because I was a good girl that always did the right thing. In the midst of all of it, I called into work and said I wasn’t coming.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  40:16

Which turned out to be a literal lifeline.

Katie Ellison

And the Secretary there, what I learned that after the fact was that the Secretary there recognized something was wrong. She sent my coworker, my partner to check on me.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

I don’t know if this Secretary did this intentionally. But she was acting as a community gatekeeper that day. This is a thing in suicide prevention training. Essentially, all the people that you interact with on a daily basis have the potential to save your life if they notice something, anything that feels off. It’s the see something, say something approach, which sounds simple until you hear a story like this. Katie couldn’t summon the will to call a hotline in that moment. But something told her to send out a coded SOS, and the message was received. Lisa also sent an SOS

Lisa Hao

I decided to write a no in with very, like certain this was going to do. And I texted a couple my friends. Like in my own last effort to save myself almost to be like, what would you miss if I were to die, you know, to see if it’s worth it, what they would miss worth me continuing on with the pain I was holding. And luckily, I think my friends are smart enough to know like, this is obviously a huge cry for help. She’s not doing well, she hasn’t been doing well, for a while. This is like Lisa might really be on the brink of doing something permanent here.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Without missing a beat, one of Lisa’s friends asked if she could come over. Lisa said no. But her friend showed up anyway, go friend spent the night and no permanent unable to be taken back choices were made. She and her friend made it to school the next day together, where Lisa visited her guidance counselor. From there, things escalated very quickly, another piece of her own story that Lisa still feels conflicted about. There was a cop on campus who was conducting a fire drill. He heard that there was a suicidal student in the office. And for whatever reason, maybe due to the history of contagion at the school, or maybe just standard protocol, Lisa found herself in the back of a cop car, heading to the hospital.

Lisa Hao  42:44

Ultimately, it was a good impetus of like look like this is severe enough that we want to hospitalized you and even being in the hospital is considered pretty severe by the doctors there. And that helped me validate the fact that this is something I was struggling with. I think that was very helpful because it’s hard to deal with something if you don’t even think it’s real, like you don’t think it’s a serious problem. But on the other hand, it was like a it was definitely difficult being the hospital and it’s difficult to have my parents find out that way.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs 

What was that conversation like with your parents? Do you remember?

Lisa Hao

A hoard either called or texted them when I was in the police card? And I think they’re just very confused. Like they’re like, What? What’s going on? We’re like, you were going where? And they came to visit me when I was in that intermediate area before I got moved to the hospital. I think they’re just very confused. You know, like, how do we did you never talk to us about this? The part that I was most worried about? And I mean, it happened. I feel like the reason I didn’t tell them earlier was just like that feeling of guilt, I knew that they would feel like, what did we do wrong as parents? How did we help? How did we not see this earlier? How can we prevent this and just didn’t want to tell them about it because like I knew that’s how they would respond. I feel like that’s how a lot of parents respond regardless of how progressive they know that’s not their fault. And I feel like there’s just a lot to deal with, like their guilt on top of my, my guilt for making them feel that way.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  44:33

I remember being a teenager, and struggling with some very heavy shit that my parents knew nothing about. I mean, we were living in the same house. My room was right above theirs. But I felt like we were in two completely different worlds. Now, being a parent myself, and dealing with very different heavy shit. I empathize with Lisa’s parents. I imagine them thinking Hey, she goes to a great school, she’s making good grades. Everything’s going according to plan. But it wasn’t landing and the hospital was a huge wake up call to Lisa and her parents that the dark feelings Lisa had been doubting for years were legitimate.

Lisa Hao

More than anything, like being there was really difficult for me. Like I said, I’ve I’m pretty Taipei, I feel like, in general, it’s something I’m still working on is like I struggle with placing too much my value on productivity. I think even growing up, there’s like, me and my friend, there’s like a strong emphasis on, like, wouldn’t be so cool to be written down on history book one day, like that’s kind of aspiration. And so, do we play somewhere where you’re not really supposed to do anything all day like other than go to therapy. It was just very disorienting. And it felt like the longest time ever, and it just felt like very difficult to just sit still. And, and so like to go from like life after school where it’s very busy, very high speed to coming in resting was difficult. And when I came out, I was very determined to never make it back in.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  46:20

After her attempt, Katie was also temporarily hospitalized. She was also met with a sweep it under the rug and move on down the road kind of attitude from her family. And she spent over a decade doing just that.

Katie Ellison

And then it wasn’t really until 2009 when I was working for the school district that it came back around. You know, I had still been struggling with my mental health all those years as an adult, and it really wasn’t until about 2009-2010, when, as an employee of the school district, I was tasked with representing the school district with the community Suicide Prevention Coalition. And then when that first young man died by suicide, I was having a conversation afterwards with my supervisor about the young man and the young man’s dad and the young man’s suicide story.

Katie Ellison

And I took the took the leap, and I told them that I was an attempt survivor. And that I had never told anyone that I was ashamed and embarrassed. But I could relate to some of the story his dad told. That’s when the stigma and the shame and embarrassment about my own mental health and my own suicide attempt. I kind of dropped that mask, I dropped kind of like old robes, I dropped them off. And I said I’m not going to carry the shame anymore. I’m going to use this experience to shine a light on it to prevent it.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  48:00

That’s not just aspirational. Katie sharing her story of hope and healing is a literal form of suicide prevention. Which actually brings us back to our original question. Is suicide contagious? The answer is it can be, but not in the way we generally use the word contagious. And y’all know we have used it a lot in 2020. It’s not like flipping a switch, where some happy go lucky person with no history of negative thoughts is suddenly driven to die after hearing one story. Please hear me. There are many factors that impact mental health and suicidal ideation. And in some cases, this could be the factor that puts a life at risk. But the important thing to convey is that suicidal thoughts don’t have to be deadly. Getting to the other side of that hopeless moment is possible. recovery is possible.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs 

I’m wondering like when you got at a hospital and what was lifelike because that’s the piece that I think we’re really curious about, you know, as we do the season and we asked like, what could we have done differently? Like you were having these thoughts? And you’re here talking to me today? Yeah, right. So, like, how did that happen?

Lisa Hao

I don’t know. It seems magical. Like it seems really hard to put my finger on.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Well, let’s try. So, after the hospital, Lisa decided to take a different approach to the question that she’d been haunted by since the sixth grade. All in or all out. She’d spent so much time and energy over the years, fixated on the all-out part. But what did the all-in look like? She realized that she could choose that too.

Lisa Hao  50:04

Instead of it being a passively waiting, like, hopefully one day, I would feel this way about my life and myself. I like made a more concerted effort to be like, Okay, how do I get there? Like, it’s not just this elusive place.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

When you’re like looking back on this, do you think there are things that could have helped you earlier? to not get to that point?

Lisa Hao

I think if I went to therapy earlier, that would have probably been helpful. Like, I think for me, a big search was like the search for answers of why do I feel this way? Like, I don’t even understand what I feel, let alone how I came to be feeling this way. So, if I at least, figured that out, then maybe I could solve it.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Lisa spent a lot of years questioning whether her feelings were legitimate. So, it’s gonna take time and practice to trust herself. She says journaling is helpful. And when you’re when you are journaling, like what kind of what are you writing about? What kind of thing I know, it’s a personal thing. So, forgive the intrusion. But what are the topics that you’re writing about?

Lisa Hao

Recently, it’s been more like, I think a big one is like, how do I fall in love with myself and not being like, how do I like myself, I think trying to figure out that spending alone time is really tough, because I think I don’t like being alone. And I think that’s something like not really sure if I like myself in general. And like, there definitely times where I struggle with suicidal ideation. Again, it’s not like a cure all I’m done. It’s constant, a constant journey. But it’s nice to be able to think back and remember, like, I was at rock bottom, and yet, I no longer constantly feel that way.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs

I know that that’s not the all in happily ever after we aspire to. But this ending is way better. Because it’s the truth. For most people. The struggle is real, right? There’s not a saying, or a meme or something. Whatever it is, it is the truth. The cure to contagion isn’t just telling kids, it gets better. It gets better. It’s just a better version of pull yourself up by the bootstraps. It’s too much pressure. It’s just another possibly unrealistic expectation. The truth is, we don’t always know what causes suicidal ideation. But we do know what exacerbates it. Lisa is so new on her journey to self-love. But we asked Katie what she would say to the younger version of herself. A girl that was a lot like Lisa.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  52:53

I’m wondering like you where you are now with all of the knowledge that you have now. What do you wish that you could say to that 24-year-old girl

Katie Ellison

I wish I could say to her that I love you. I would probably wrap my arms around her like a mom. Because I’m a mom now. And I would say I’ve got a kid. I love you. Yeah, this is hard, but you’re worth it. Headsail love you. You are perfect just the way that you are. You are lovable, you’re deserving of happiness, and love and joy and success and friendships. Just because you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to be anyone’s anything. You don’t have to earn it yet just start that’s what I would say to her.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  54:29

I told you earlier about the Werther effect. Are all these young men started dressing up like this fictional character and putting it into their lives. Well, it turns out there’s an equal and opposite response called the Papageno effect. Papageno is another fictional character. This one from the 18th century opera The Magic Flute, because I guess all psych researchers are art nerds. Anyway, like Werther, Papageno loses his love and feels like the only way out is suicide. But before he can act on it, three other characters, the community gatekeepers, if you will show up and convince him that life is worth living. The story of Katie and Lisa isn’t just for people who are struggling with dark thoughts. It’s for all of us. Because suicide doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in communities. I think most of the time were taught to just mind their own business, that that’s the way to be respectful. But if that secretary in Katie’s story, had minded her own business, Katie might not be here today, telling us this very inspirational story. And I hope that Lisa is listening and feeling the love that Katie sending to her younger self.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  56:00

Next week, we look at what happens when knowing a free thing isn’t a cure for pain.

Speaker 7  56:07

She for whatever reason, and I don’t I don’t understand it. I don’t think I ever Well, he didn’t have the strength to seek the help that he needed. And he more than anybody knew what those risk factors were, you know what those warning signs were? And he hid them from us.



LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. Our supervising producer is Jackie Danziger, associate producer is Julia York with additional production assistants by Claire Jones. Technical Director is Kegan Zema music is by Hannah Brown. Executive producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. We are thrilled to partner with the JED foundation this season and grateful for all their wisdom and support. You can find them online at JED foundation. And you can find more mental health resources at If you want to hear more LAST DAY we have a whole first season. Go listen to it wherever you get your podcasts. And while you are there. I beg of you to take a moment to rate review and subscribe if you haven’t done so already. You can find us online at Lemonada Media that’s L E M O N A D A and you can find me @wittelstephanie. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.

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