The price of declaring an epidemic

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.

Occasionally an expert, made uneasy by the unrelenting tone of crisis, will come along to speak a cautionary word. This has just happened with another well-publicized epidemic - child abuse. Dr. Daniel C. Schuman, director of psychiatry at the Norfolk County (Mass.) Probate and Family Court, recently observed, ''Child abuse for decades was dismissed, and we were wrong . . . but the pendulum has swung too far now.''

Still, the article that reported Dr. Schuman's moderating words hurried on to quote another, less optimistic expert (''We probably haven't even scratched the surface''), citing statistics as gloomy as they are unverifiable.

Epidemic - meaning literally ''among the people,'' general, practically everywhere - is not a moderate word, and moderation is not the game.

Besides simple exaggeration, there is another danger to the public cry of ''Epidemic!'' Let us take as further example the December cover story of Science 84 magazine, which reads, ''The Epidemiology of Murder: Will the Patterns Point to a Cure?'' A remark by the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, sets the approach: ''Violence is every bit as much a public health issue for me and my successors in this century as smallpox, tuberculosis, and syphilis were for my predecessors in the last two centuries.''

But what is the effect of treating murder ''as though it were a virus''?

How does it distort reality to remove murder from the realm of moral responsibility and relegate it to the department of immunology?

Would one, in retrospect, presume to cure Cain by sending him to the nearest public health office and administering the appropriate drug, thus allowing Abel to live happily ever after?

The very question is trivializing.

To declare an epidemic is to get attention, quick - but at what a price! The metaphor binds us over to clinical answers for philosophical questions. And how that takes the drama out of freedom! How it takes the heroism out of being good!

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