Celebrity Suicides Spawn 'Copycat' Tragedies, Study Shows
When the media report on a celebrity's suicide, especially in a sensationalist way, it may fuel "copycat" tragedies, a new review finds.
In an analysis of 20 studies from more than a dozen countries, researchers confirmed a phenomenon sometimes called "suicide contagion." It happens when vulnerable people identify with a person who died by suicide, and then see that route as a viable solution to their own problems.
And research shows that media coverage of a celebrity's death by suicide may have a particularly strong impact.
Across the studies in the review, suicide rates in the general public rose anywhere from 8% to 18% in the two months following media stories on a celebrity's suicide.
The connection was even clearer when that coverage eschewed experts' recommendations for responsible reporting: When stories described a famous person's method of suicide, deaths by that same method rose by 30%, on average.
It all suggests that media coverage has a "clear and compelling impact on subsequent suicide rates," said lead researcher Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, an associate professor at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria.
His team reported the findings March 18 in the BMJ medical journal.
There are guidelines for how the media should report on suicide deaths, from the World Health Organization and an array of mental health organizations. But they are not followed consistently, or in all countries, Niederkrotenthaler pointed out.
The latest findings, he said, "highlight that media guidelines for the reporting of suicide need to be widely distributed and implemented."
Recent years have seen widespread coverage of the deaths of celebrities like Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade -- with many stories giving details of their suicides, or otherwise violating reporting guidelines.
And research suggests there were consequences. One study found that in the months following Williams' death in 2014, suicide deaths in the United States rose 10%. Specifically, there was a 32% spike in suicides by the method he used.
But it's not only the reporting on details that matters. The involvement of a celebrity seems to affect certain vulnerable individuals -- especially when they identify with that person in some way.
"A number of studies indicate that rises in suicide occur more in the demographic groups that most closely match the celebrity," said Dr. David Gunnell, a professor at Bristol Medical School in England.
For example, after Williams' death, there was a notable rise in suicides among men aged 45 to 64.
Gunnell, who wrote an editorial published with the review, agreed that media outlets need to do a better job of following guidelines.
Those guidelines say that among other steps, journalists should skip any speculation on the reasons for the death, and avoid front-page coverage and sensational headlines.
No one is saying the subject should be taboo, however.
In fact, Niederkrotenthaler said, research suggests that media coverage can have positive effects -- when, for example, it spotlights stories of people seeking help and recovering from suicidal thoughts.
Ken Norton is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate in New Hampshire. The group was one of many that collaborated on recommendations for reporting on suicide -- for journalists, as well as bloggers and others on social media.
Unfortunately, Norton said, media outlets have yet to formally adopt the guidelines.
"Some of the coverage of Kate Spade's death, for example, was horrendous -- including from reputable sources," Norton said.
He agreed, however, that the media can have a positive impact. Even with the flawed coverage of Williams' death, for example, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline spiked afterward, and then remained higher than the previous norm.
What's important is using care and discretion -- advice that also applies to non-journalists sharing news stories or commenting on social media, according to Norton.
"People may not always think about how this could affect a friend who reads it," he said.
For resources, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
SOURCES: Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, Ph.D., MMSc., associate professor, Center for Public Health, Medical University of Vienna, Austria; David Gunnell, M.B. Ch.B., Ph.D., professor, epidemiology, Bristol Medical School, Bristol, England; Ken Norton, LICSW, executive director, National Alliance on Mental Illness-New Hampshire, Concord; March 18, 2020, BMJ, online