Life imitating art, or not

If you wish to travel by train from the legendary city of Leicester to the slightly less important town of London, you will disembark at St Pancras station, a truly magnificent Victorian structure. There, after huge expenditure, construction work and refurbishment, you can now cross platforms and board the Eurostar to the continent. More importantly, this will allow our foreign friends to cut out the mayhem of the Big Smoke and whizz on to Leicester at breakneck speed and see Daniel Lambert's chair, or the street where the Elephant Man was born, or the Fox's Glacier Mint factory.

One thing they won't now be able to see at St Pancras, however, is the complete version of the frieze that should accompany Paul Day's statue The Meeting Place. Most of the frieze will be allowed, but not everything Mr Day planned. As the disgusted Daily Telegraph reported, a man 'giving the finger' will not be permitted. Most controversial, though, is the part of the frieze featuring a man falling, or being pushed, in front of a train driven by the Grim Reaper. The BBC website states that this will not be allowed either, but the Times online is less explicit. Either way, many people are upset and have complained.

The Samaritans were particularly concerned, and a spokeswoman said that, “it’s really important that any images don’t portray suicide methods. Research has shown that it can lead to an increase in copycat deaths, particularly among young, vulnerable people.” Whilst I am fully aware of the risk of imitative behaviour, I am unsure of the possibility that a sculpture would have caused people to kill themselves. Can anyone really have been likely to wander into St Pancras, feeling suicidal but unsure how to end it all, and then have seen the artwork and decided to jump in front of a train? This seems peculiarly unlikely.

Wanting to obtain some kind of clarity, I searched the scientific literature. I found a 1994 study by Sonneck et al., of the University of Vienna, entitled 'Imitative Suicide on the Viennese Subway' [Social Science & Medicine, vol. 38, p. 453-457], which seemed to be of some relevance. Apparently, an increase in suicides on the Viennese underground between 1984 and 1987 was correlated with dramatic or sensationalist newspaper coverage. The Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention (and other bodies) then produced a set of guidelines for reporting such stories, and the suicide rate fell again. Sonneck et al. suggested therefore that ' reports on suicides may trigger additional suicides, though it was not possible to prove a causal connection between a single article and a subsequent suicide or suicide attempt.'

So, perhaps there is a chance of copycat suicides at St Pancras, but they are much more likely to be the result of media coverage than an artwork. What remains unclear to me, at least until I find any more research papers, is whether there's any evidence for someone killing themselves as a consequence of seeing suicide depicted in a sculpture.