Suicide prevention depends heavily on our ability to identify and address various factors that increase the risk of suicide. Several studies have shown that such factors may include mass gatherings, like religious and sporting events. These studies, however, focused on national level events, where as local events and their impact on suicide rates have until recently been largely ignored by researchers.
Eduard Ponarin and a group of researchers from Dnipropetrovsk* have recently completed a study of the impact of mass events, including sports, entertainment, and religious events, on suicidal behaviour in cities. The study was carried out in Dnipropetrovsk, a city of about one million people, and the findings were published in BMC Public Health.
The data were gathered between 2005 and 2010. Suicide attempts, suicides, and the total amount of suicide-related behaviours were registered daily for men and women. The researchers also documented any relevant incidents 7 to 14 days after each event, as well as the level of suicidal behaviour a week before the planned event as a control parameter. The study covered 427 local mass gatherings, such as concerts, football games, and occasional mass events organised by the Orthodox Church and by new religious movements (NRMs).
The analysis focused on 1,078 suicide attempts (314 men and 764 women) and 1,027 suicides (802 men and 225 women). The methods included hanging – 81.8%; jumping from a height – 9.4%; use of a firearm – 3.6%; use of a sharp object – 3.4%; and poisoning – 0.7%.
Many studies show that religious holidays, such as Christmas, are often followed by a trail of suicides – but little, if any, research is available on the impact of mass religious gatherings on suicidal behaviour. Religion is typically believed to reduce the risk of suicide, as noted, in particular, by Durkheim.
More recent cross-cultural studies confirm that in societies with strong religious beliefs suicide rates are minimal. However, this applies only to traditional religions. «In contrast, it is well known that all mass suicides in recent decades were committed by members of new religious movements,» the authors note.
This study confirms the link between local mass gatherings of NRMs and suicidal activity in the population. «We explain it in terms of Gabennesch’s theory of the ‘broken-promises effect’. It means that people who are already considering suicide may postpone it hoping that a miracle promised by NRM leaders may save them. But when a miracle fails to happen, those people commit suicide – which explains why suicides are often associated with religious events,» Ponarin says.
Conversely, the researchers noted a significant decrease in the relative risk of suicide in women after mass events organised by the Orthodox Church. «One can explain it by the fact that Orthodox priests have learned from experience to use a more cautious and perhaps more practical approach to miracles,» according to Ponarin.
Having studied suicides in the U.S., the researchers found that «the age of a religious denomination is inversely associated with the rates of suicide – meaning that suicides are less frequent in older religions, since they have probably developed more effective approaches compared to new denominations usingless time-tested practices,» Ponarin suggests.
The study found a decrease in female suicidal behaviour after concerts and shows, which is consistent with earlier research showing a positive effect of cultural activities. The authors believe, however, that this effect needs further study, since its mechanism is unclear.
In contrast, the effect of football games on suicide is clear, since suicides in men were associated with a defeat of their local team. This research confirms that a loss suffered by a favourite team may trigger suicidal activity, since fans tend to identify themselves with the team and perceive its defeat as their own failure.
It is not fully understood how exactly sporting events affect potentially suicidal fans and spectators, but literature on crowd psychology points to two factors. First, there is usually a core, i.e. a person or a small group trying to warm up the crowd, and second, the crowd submits to the core's energy and develops a sense of shared identity.
The researchers also note that suicidal behaviour may be triggered by family conflicts fuelled by anger, inappropriate behaviour, and drinking, often associated with being in a crowd.
The study authors believe that further research in this area could contribute to effective suicide prevention at both societal and individual levels, while underestimating the impact of mass gatherings may undermine the effect of suicide prevention programmes.
* Vassily Usenko, MD, Ph.D., member of the Medical Technology NGO, Dnipropetrovsk
Sergey Svirin, City Hospital no. 14, Dnipropetrovsk
Yan Shchekaturov, Head of the 'Dialogue' Centre for Victims of Destructive Cults, Dnipropetrovsk