Experts see troubled kid who chose copycat act
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
"We're trying to avoid the issue of terrorism because he was a 15-year-old kid who was pretty screwed up," James Sewell, director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said this week. "This is a ... troubled kid who saw something and decided to try it."
Despite the honor student's professed sympathy for international terrorist Osama bin Laden, officials say that dying for a cause wasn't what drove Bishop to abandon his flying instructor on a St. Petersburg tarmac, then kill himself in one final, dramatic gesture.
A deadly concoction of depression, a solitary inner life, familial strains and youth fueled Bishop's last, desperate act, say psychologists and suicide experts.
With the images of hijacked jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center etched into the national consciousness, experts say, Bishop's death represents the latest chapter of the long-studied phenomenon of copycat suicides.
"It's undeniable at this point: I think 9-11 offered a new option for how to kill yourself in a lethal way," said Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychology professor at Atlanta's Emory School of Medicine.
Flying into a building is no quiet exit. It falls into the category of "exhibitionist" suicides -- a method of trying to reap spectacular attention, said Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.
"They, in effect, really want to make a splash that gets publicity, usually with some mind-set that they live on after their death," Berman said.
Bishop was described by investigators as a depressed loner, possibly alienated from his mother. Whether he intended to harm more people than himself is unclear.
But his support of bin Laden and the death toll Sept. 11 would put him in a league with the teenagers who shot classmates dead at Columbine High School, said several psychologists.
"This particular kid fits an interesting profile that I think the Secret Service and the FBI have been investigating for some time now: Kids who have grown up with an inadequate sense of empathy," said Michael Peck, a Santa Monica psychologist who has specialized in suicides of youths.
Professionals distinguish copycat suicides from protest or fanatical suicides, such as Buddhist monks who self-immolated in the early 1960s, or even terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ninety-five percent of people who commit suicide suffer from some sort of mental illness, experts say. Copycat suicides sweep up troubled people who identify with the original suicide victim or succumb to the power of suggestion, experts say.
When Marilyn Monroe died, for instance, death by overdose among young, white women spiked temporarily. In Turkmenistan, a Muslim ex-Soviet republic, 69 young women set themselves afire in 1991, reportedly because of familial or relationship strife.
About 5 percent of suicides involve some form of mimicry, Berman said.
In 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 29,000 U.S. residents killed themselves.
Among troubled adolescents, in particular, the desire to emulate behavior is particularly strong, say child psychologists. That makes them vulnerable, even to destructive tendencies.
"If a young celebrity like Kurt Cobain kills himself, there are kids who want to kill themselves in the same way," Peck said. "Kids are extremely vulnerable to that kind of thing, whereas when (attorney) Vince Foster killed himself, no adult lawyers were killing themselves that way."
And yet, Bishop's suicide may not create a new spate of similar suicides, simply because of logistics.
"There aren't too many adolescents who have taken lessons to fly planes," said Dr. Humberto Nagera, psychology professor at the University of South Florida.
-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks