Widespread media coverage may have contributed to a 10% increase in suicides following Robin Williams’ highly publicized death, according to a new study.
In the four months after Williams’ death by suicide in August 2014, CDC data revealed that there were 18,690 deaths by suicide in the U.S. — significantly more than the 16,849 suicides that past data and trends would have predicted for that time period, according to an analysis published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.
“When you looked at the data, you didn’t need statistics to see that something happened,” says study author David Fink, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “You see this very large spike in August that you can just tell is off.”
The study is among the first to examine the impact of celebrity suicide in the U.S. (One paper in 1996 paper focused on Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s death two years earlier.) While the research doesn’t prove that Williams’ death, and the resulting news coverage and social media response, caused the observed spike in suicides, a number of parallels suggest that it at least played a part, Fink says.
For one thing, the jump was particularly significant among men ages 30 to 44, a demographic similar to the actor’s. A disproportionate number of the victims also died by strangulation, as many news outlets reported that Williams did, according to the paper.
That overlap isn’t very surprising, Fink says. While the factors that contribute to every suicide are different, Fink says a common theory is that many cases share three precursors: a breakdown in the person’s social structure, access to a means of suicide and an ability to overcome a natural fear of death. A high-profile celebrity suicide may partially fulfill the third element, Fink says.
“When you see somebody that you can relate to that has overcome this natural fear of death, you might be able to relate to that and take the same behaviors you were incapable of prior,” he says. “That’s why we expect to see the same demographics.”
While Fink’s study didn’t look at how, exactly, media coverage affects suicide rates, the volume of stories about Williams may have contributed to an uptick. Many outlets strayed from the World Health Organization’s responsible suicide reporting guidelines in the wake of Williams’ death, the study says, since many titles published details about the actor’s death and others speculated about possible causes.
Other research has found that when publications do follow these guidelines — avoiding sensationalization and focusing coverage on warning signs and suicide prevention resources, for example — copycat suicides may be minimized. Taken together, these findings suggest that the media plays an important role in managing the aftermath of a tragedy.
“This really was a study to identify that this effect is occurring, and hopefully stimulate new research into how to mitigate its effects,” Fink says. “There is some evidence that changes in reporting can have an effect.”
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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