In a harrowing pattern of self-immolation incidents in the United States, experts are grappling with the complexities of the alarming behavior and question if it portends a growing trend.

“[Self-immolation] is usually a result of a mix of extreme personal despair and an expression of dissent or a call for help,” Niloufar Esmaeilpour, a clinical counselor, told The Dallas Express.

One of the first cases of an American setting themselves on fire that drew viral notoriety in 2024 involved an active member of the military. Senior Airman Aaron Bushnell, 25, engaged in a self-immolation protest on February 25 outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Bushnell was allegedly protesting Israel’s ongoing military campaign against terrorists in Gaza, as previously reported by The Dallas Express.

Following the death of Bushnell, the Air Force launched an investigation to uncover insights and lessons from the incident, according to Fox News.

Addressing the loss of Bushnell less than a week after the incident, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin emphasized the gravity of the soldier’s death. Allvin said that Bushnell’s act was one of despair amidst broader challenges involving mental health problems. He acknowledged the political undertones of Bushnell’s protest but underscored the focus on the individual tragedy.

“We’re looking after family, looking at the unit and really trying to understand if there’s any context behind this, what lessons can be learned, but it’s really about the individual that we lost,” Allvin said, per Fox News.

Bushnell’s act, which was streamed live on the website Twitch, drew attention to his personal beliefs and declaration of no longer being “complicit in genocide” amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

Less than two months after Bushnell’s death, 37-year-old Max Azzarello set himself on fire on April 19 outside the New York City courthouse where former President Donald Trump was being tried. Azzarello also tragically succumbed to his injuries. Four officers who responded to the incident sustained minor injuries.

The incident unfolded on a Friday afternoon when CNN was broadcasting live only a few feet away. Azzarello had depression and an extreme obsession with political conspiracy theories, reported the New York Post. His friends described him as “brilliant” and “almost too smart.”

Azzarello’s posted a final statement to Substack, The Ponzi Papers:

“My name is Max Azzarello, and I am an investigative researcher who has set himself on fire outside of the Trump trial in Manhattan.

“This extreme act of protest is to draw attention to an urgent and important discovery:

“We are victims of a totalitarian con, and our own government (along with many of their allies) is about to hit us with an apocalyptic fascist world coup.

“These claims sound like fantastical conspiracy theory, but they are not. They are proof of conspiracy. If you investigate this mountain of research, you will prove them too. If you learn a great deal about Ponzi schemes, you will discover that our life is a lie. If you follow this story and the links below, you will discover the rotten truth of ‘post-truth America’. You will learn the scariest and stupidest story in world history. And you will realize that we are all in a desperate state of emergency that requires your action.”

The rest of Azzarello’s statement can be found here.

In another 2024 report of self-immolation, Fox 13 Tampa Bay reported on May 29 that a man was critically injured after setting himself ablaze inside a Publix store in Plant City, Florida. The 30-year-old man was not identified by name, but he was last reported to be hospitalized in critical condition. The motives behind this case are also uncertain, and an investigation is still being conducted.

Interestingly, another incident unfolded on May 29, but five years earlier, in 2019, near the White House. Arnav Gupta of Bethesda, Maryland, set himself ablaze in Ellipse Park near the Washington Monument. According to reports, there were no apparent political or protest-adjacent motives behind Gupta’s actions.

Despite swift responses from law enforcement and medical personnel, Gupta died from his injuries later that same evening, reported CNBC.

When DX asked Esmaeilpour how we can understand such acts of self-harm, she said, “In the instances of Aaron Bushnell, Arnav Gupta, and Max Azzarello, we have people who likely felt they were out of options and this was their only way to bring attention to their cause or pain… self-immolation can be associated with severe psychological distress, which very often surfacing in the form of extreme depression, trauma and feelings of helplessness. If these people think that normal communication or protest is not successful enough, they would commit such desperate acts.”

In a 2018 article, Jon Coburn discussed his research on self-immolation and wrote that hundreds of Americans have expressed their political dissent through public self-immolation in the last few decades alone.

Coburn further states that in 1963, self-immolation gained prominence as a protest method when Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức immolated himself in Saigon, South Vietnam. The event was famously documented by American photojournalist Malcolm Browne, whose image became iconic worldwide.

Additionally, Front. Public Health published a 13-year study conducted by multiple researchers on February 20, 2024,  which has shed some light on the patterns of self-immolation as a method of suicide, illustrating the potentially pivotal role of COVID-19 as a stressor.

The study, spanning from 2008 to 2021, analyzed data from hospitalized patients in Serbia who suffered intentional burns from self-immolation. Results revealed a fluctuating pattern over the years, with a notable surge observed during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2021.

The annual percent change peaked during this period, indicating an increase in the incidence and severity of self-immolation injuries. As there was a significant rise in the frequency of psychiatric diagnoses among patients during the pandemic, the study suggested a potential association between pandemic-induced stress and mental health issues leading to such extreme acts.

The researchers’ findings show the need for heightened awareness and interventions to address the psychological toll of the pandemic, particularly among vulnerable populations prone to suicidal behaviors.

With self-immolation presenting a complex interplay of socio-economic, cultural, and mental health factors, the study also focused on the importance of using different comprehensive strategies to prevent and mitigate suicide and self-harm risks.

According to the study, further research and targeted interventions are warranted to understand the underlying mechanisms driving this extreme act and implement effective preventive measures.

“We must approach these stories with empathy and a willingness to understand the causes that force an individual to commit an act of self-harm with fatal consequences,” concluded Esmaeilpour.