In 1980, two young girls living in northern Sri Lanka committed suicide by eating the seeds of the Yellow Oleander, a common ornamental shrub that grows in most parts of the tropics and is cultivated across Sri Lanka in gardens and hedges. In the following year there were 23 cases of oleander poisoning, apparently spurred by the publicity of the first suicides. There were 46 in the year after that and hundreds of cases in the following years. Since oleander became associated with suicide in Sri Lanka, the number of deaths has risen steadily and health services across the island have been besieged by new cases. Suicide by oleander poisoning remains a major cause of death in Sri Lanka for young and old alike despite an aggressive government campaign to eliminate oleander plants and there seems to be no end in the foreseeable future.
Copycat suicides are not a new phenomenon by any means. In 1774, Goethe published his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther about a passionate young poet who commits suicide in a romantic fashion over a lost love. The novel inspired a cultural movement called "Werther fever" with numerous young men imitating the hero any way that they could. Unfortunately, this also led to an estimated 2,000 suicides as fans tried to imitate their hero's romantic death. Goethe distanced himself as best he could but the novel was banned in some places due to alarm over the suicides (a fellow author even rewrote the novel with a happy ending). Even since then, the copycat suicide phenomenon has also been referred to as The Werther Effect.
Studies examining the role that the media plays in suicide rates have continued to establish a link between publicized suicides and copycat deaths. One recent overview determined that studies examining the effect of a well-publicized entertainment or political celebrity were 14.3 times more likely to find a copycat effect than those that did not. Studies examining the effect of real suicides were 4.3 times more likely to find a copycat effect than studies of fictional suicides. Recent suicides that have spurred copycat deaths include Kurt Cobain and Japanese musician Yukiko Okada. While some countries such as Norway and Brazil have adopted formal journalistic codes to downplay suicide where possible to reduce copycat deaths, ethical issues regarding publication of information on suicides tend to be left up to individual editors in most countries.
It is still a matter of speculation as to why copycat suicides occur. The best answer seems to be that vulnerable people (who may be suffering from mental illness or who have already made at least one attempt) may respond to media portrayals of spectacular celebrity suicides or unintentional glorification of death. Age seems to be another factor with young people and the elderly being vulnerable to media portrayals of death, particularly if the portrayed death is seen as relating to their personal situation.
In the meantime, the oleander deaths are continuing. As for the next epidemic of copycat suicides? Only time (and the media) will tell.