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The price of declaring an epidemic

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WHEN a trend is a bad trend, it has become a shrill journalistic custom to call it an epidemic. Thus divorce is said to have achieved the status of an epidemic, along with cocaine abuse and income-tax cheating and who knows what else.

It is such a simple way - such a lazy way - to create a thrilling headline.

As printed out in large black letters, these epidemics can indeed be contagious. The question is: Are the historical events multiplying at a rate to be described as epidemic? Or is the epidemic mostly - partly, at least - a matter of media hype?

For a recent case of declared epidemic, consider teen-age suicide. The typical buildup proceeds like this:

A local newspaper reports on a suicide, or a suspected suicide, by a high school student.

Within a short period of time, a second teen-age suicide, or suspected suicide, occurs in the same town or a town nearby - or even in the same state.

The grief-stricken survivors and the stunned bystanders ask themselves, What's going on here? - as if suicide had become the norm.

A larger metropolitan paper is on hand by now to supply the answer. An article appears, citing national statistics for teen-age suicide as compared with 10 years ago.

A week or so later a follow-up article, now assuming the grim popularity of teen-age suicide, features interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists, who are prepared to explain why seemingly happy and successful young people elect to kill themselves.

Another follow-up article, totally succumbing to the metaphor of disease, warns parents of the symptoms to look for in their own children and the preventive antidotes to take.

By now a climate of fear, of dread expectancy, has been established. Ordinary parents turn themselves into hypochondriacs of the psyche, seeing suicidal impulses in a loss of appetite, a slight falling-off in grades, or merely the closed door to an adolescent's room.

The epidemic is decidedly on.

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