Highway suicide: Why do people keep lying down in Minnesota traffic?
On a mid-November morning last year, as the sun was still coming up, a woman wearing a long, dark jacket wandered onto Interstate 94.
It was a horrifying sight to drivers on their commute to work, many of whom had to veer quickly out of the way to avoid hitting her.
"Everyone was kind of swerving a little bit and then getting back in their lanes," driver Stephen Feldman told us in an interview after the incident. "You try to look back but you can't really see anything because it's chaos."
Then the woman lay down, and was killed by oncoming traffic.
It was a chilling incident. Not only was a woman dead, but an innocent driver had killed her. Unfortunately, similar apparent suicides play out on Minnesota highways a few times every year, says Lt. Eric Roeske, spokesman for the State Patrol.
"It's most difficult on the scene for the person who hit them," says Roeske. "They don't know what to do. They're not guilty of a crime or anything. You just try to help them the best you can, and send them on their way."
But recently, it's been even more common. Including the tragedy in November, the State Patrol has seen at least five similar incidents in as many months.
"It has been happening more frequently," Roeske says.
There is no definitive answer as to why. To gain some insight, we spoke with two mental health experts who study suicide prevention at the University of Rochester's medical school: Dr. Eric Caine and Dr. Yeates Conwell.
Both say that suicide by traffic is generally uncommon, though it shares similarities with other forms of suicide, such as lying in front of a train, or suicide by cop.
"I don't pretend to understand why it is that someone would choose to do this," says Caine, chair of the college's psychiatry department. "I suspect that the moment they're doing it, they're not thinking of other people."
If there is a connection between these tragedies, it could be what's known as the "Contagion Effect," says Conwell. Because they often shut down traffic on major highways, some of these incidents have received prominent media attention from news outlets around the Twin Cities, including City Pages.
There is some debate over the link between media attention and copycats, but Conwell points to the problem of charcoal burning suicides in Asia. Over the past decade, parts of East Asia have seen an alarming increase in carbon monoxide deaths caused by intentionally burning barbecue charcoal indoors. Before the late '90s, this was unheard of. By 2004, it was the second-leading method of suicide in Hong Kong.
Some research has suggested that the media's coverage of the suicides was to blame for the increase. From one study, "The Evolution of the Epidemic of Charcoal-Burning Suicide in Taiwan: A Spatial and Temporal Analysis," published in 2010:
The charcoal-burning epidemic has altered the geography of suicide in Taiwan. The observed pattern and its changes in the past decade suggest that widespread media coverage of this suicide method and easy access to barbecue charcoal may have contributed to the epidemic. Prevention strategies targeted at these factors, such as introducing and enforcing guidelines on media reporting and restricting access to charcoal, may help tackle the increase of charcoal-burning suicides.
"It just took off," says Conwell. "Part of the reason we believe that happened was because of the way it was portrayed in the media, as sort of an easy, almost romantic way to go."
But, Conwell adds: "Now, lying down in a freeway seems anything but that."
If you're having suicidal thoughts, we strongly encourage you to call the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK. For more information, visit the Suicide Awareness Voices for Education website.
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