The last time they counted, 10,042 people lived in Harrisonville, Missouri. More than twice that number, some 23,000, have signed a petition urging officials at Harrisonville High to have a heart. They want school officials to call the name of a member of the Class of 2018 who committed suicide two years ago at this year’s graduation, as her family is pressuring them to do.
But those 23,000 people are not necessarily right.
The family of the girl, Gabi Keil, suspects that the stigma of suicide is behind the decision. But experts on teen suicide say the important thing is for the school to memorialize deceased students the same way regardless of how they died. The point is to neither stigmatize nor glamorize suicide, and to mourn and talk about the person who took his own life while giving him neither more attention nor less.
“They need to stick to their policy” whatever it is, said James Mazza, a psychology professor and researcher into suicide contagion at the University of Washington. “You can’t have the football player who died in a car accident” recognized but not the student who took his or her own life. Or vice versa.
That’s what Harrisonville school officials say they’re doing in recognizing Gabi with a chair draped with a graduation gown.
“The way she passed away hasn’t even been discussed” as a rationale for the decision, said district spokeswoman Jill Filer. “We’re trying to follow what we’ve done in the past” and “doing what we’ve done when we lost a student to a murder and when we lost a student to a car accident within the last five years.”
Members of the school’s Class of 2014 each placed a white rose in the empty chair memorializing their classmate Katie Rios, who was stabbed to death by her cousin four years earlier. According to a story in The Star at the time, there was a moment of silence, for Rios and all other deceased relatives and friends.
“I don’t remember that,” said Filer. But “we’re trying to do the right thing for all involved.” For the family, but all of the other students, too.
The school principal offered to order a diploma in Gabi’s name for the family, Filer said, but they want her name called.
Awful as their situation is, and easy as it is to sympathize, there are other considerations. Suicide contagion is real, and such a long-recognized phenomenon that Goethe’s 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” about a broken-hearted artist who shoots himself, was banned in some places after suicides that seemed to copy Werther’s.
Real suicides are four times more contagious than fictional ones. Celebrity suicides are 14 times more likely to be copied, and media reports of suicide can be dangerous, too.
Contagion is also quite complicated.
“‘13 Reasons Why’ was problematic,” Mazza said of last year’s Netflix series about a young woman’s suicide. One study found that “How to commit suicide” was Googled 26 percent more in the 19 days following its debut.
A suicide that happened two years ago, like Gabi’s, is unlikely to be copied at this point. Talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicidal behavior, and may prevent it.
So what does? “Glamorization,” Mazza said. “Putting someone on a pedestal as a martyr. If we only highlight the positive, we only make it worse.”
With all that in mind, what’s most important, with all due respect to Gabi’s family, is not whether or not her name is called, but that going forward, every other deceased student is recognized in exactly the same way.