by Tony Wyman
After comedian Robin Williams committed suicide on August 11, 2014, the number of people in America who took their own lives increased 10% over the next five months.
Suicide prevention experts call this phenomenon “The Robin Williams Effect” and worry that media coverage of a celebrity’s suicide might be the catalyst that pushes others thinking about taking their own lives over the edge. If celebrities, with all their fame, adoring fans, remarkable wealth and limitless opportunities can’t find happiness, the thinking goes of a person considering suicide, how am I going to dig myself out of this hole?
“The effect you see . . . is so dramatic, you don’t even need statistics to see it,” said David S. Fink, co-author of a Columbia University study that determined 1841 more people committed suicide following Mr. Williams’ death than normal. In addition, the study found that suicides by hanging or suffocation, the method of suicide chosen by Mr. Williams, increased by 32% over the five months following his death.
The increase of suicides by other methods was only 3% over the same period. “That’s very rare to see an effect so big you just need the statistics to confirm it. You can see it with the naked eye,” Mr. Fink said, referring to a graph that depicted suicides before and after the celebrity’s death.
The Media’s Role in the Robin Williams Effect
Suicide prevention groups have warned for years that excessive media attention, particularly stories that seem to glamorize a celebrity’s death or that fail to list extenuating circumstances like physical or mental illness that make a famous person’s suicide less romantic, bear some responsibility for the increase in suicides that follow.
One such group, Samaritans.org, a British organization that provides 24-hour assistance for people contemplating suicide, issued a warning to the media two days after Mr. Williams’ suicide, referring reporters and editors to a list of guidelines the organization published to help the news media report celebrity suicides in a way that didn’t encourage other vulnerable people to take their own lives.
“Research shows that inappropriate portrayal of suicide in the media can lead to imitative behaviour amongst vulnerable people and this risk is heightened when a celebrity has died in this way. We issued a briefing to the media yesterday reminding them of these risks and specifically asking them to avoid reporting explicit details of the suicide method. We also offered guidance on reporting the death appropriately. For the most part it’s positive to see the media has talked about the complexities of suicide and the need to breakdown the stigma around mental health issues, as well as encouraging people to seek help,” Samaritans said.
Among other recommendations contained in the guidelines, Samaritans encouraged the media to avoid over-simplifying the reasons a celebrity took his or her life.
The list includes reasons such as a career set-back or the loss of a relationship, as well as taking great care to avoid sensationalizing the celebrity’s death.
“Be wary of over-emphasising community expressions of grief. Doing so may suggest that people are honouring the suicidal behaviour rather than mourning a death. Reporting suicide as a tragic waste and an avoidable loss is more beneficial in preventing further deaths.”
The Power of a Celebrity Suicide
The phenomenon of celebrity suicides leading to an increase in deaths in the general population is hardly new. In fact, it may have started as far back as 1774 when a book published by German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe led to a spate of suicides of young men across Europe.
The novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was the story of a young man who commits suicide after failing to win the hand of the woman he loves. In response, dozens of young male readers killed themselves in the same manner fictional Werther did, often wearing the same style clothes he was wearing at the time he shot himself in the novel.
Why do celebrity deaths have such a powerful impact on people?
According to researchers, it is often because our relationships with celebrities is exaggerated by their fame.
In other words, the emotional impact of their suicide is greater than it should be because their fame makes us feel like we know them personally, when we really don’t.
And because we often share emotional experiences with the celebrity, either through their art or because we know the intimate and often traumatic details of their personal lives, painful things that we may have experienced, as well, we feel a closeness to them that makes their suicides substantially more painful than they would be otherwise. And that perceived shared experience increases the likelihood that a vulnerable person might be pushed into copying the celebrity’s death.
“In the case of celebrities, the potential for someone at risk to make an emotional connection and over-identify with them is greater, in some cases even to interpret their death as affirmation that they could take their own life,” said Samaritans‘ Lorna Fraser.
Social Media and Entertainment Also Plays a Role
Of course, social media also plays a role in amplifying the emotional impact of a celebrity’s suicide. The National Institute of Health did a study published in 2015 that showed a significant increase in the number of posts on the social media platform Reddit indicates that the suicides of celebrities had an impact on the nature of posts made in reference to those deaths.
Specifically, the NIH determined that celebrity suicides led to “more prominent suicidal thoughts … expressed in posts succeeding the celebrity suicides,” leading them to suggest social media platforms should create “automated or semi-automated suicide ideation detectors … that can be used to bring timely help and support to these vulnerable communities.”
In addition to social media, television shows such as Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” have also been linked to an increase in suicide ideation. Following the traumatic episode of “13 Reasons Why” where the protagonist of the show, Hannah Baker, commits suicide in a scene that lasted three minutes, critics blasted producers for glamorizing teen suicide. Goodtherapy.org had this to say about how producers have dealt with the issue:
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why glamorizes suicide to a vulnerable audience. It sends the troublesome message that if you are not able to find your voice in life but are thoughtful about planning your death, you can bring about justice and have the last word from beyond. What a way to stick it to the people who contributed to your decision to end your life.
Their complaint practically mirrors one of the guidelines Samaritans asks the media to follow on depicting suicide as a solution to a problem. They warn, “Be careful not to promote the idea that suicide achieves results. For example, that, as a result of someone taking their own life, a bully was exposed or made to apologise.”
That is, of course, precisely what “13 Reasons Why” does; it shows Hannah Baker killing herself as a way to get revenge against her classmates who treated her poorly.
Producers argue that her death as a warning to others that their actions and the way they treat others could lead to tragic results, such as the suicide of a victim of bullying, but Barrie Sueskind, a psychotherapist specializing in treating teens, suggest that isn’t the message the show is portraying.
Instead of seeking help, she spent the last week of her life crafting an elaborate scavenger hunt as a legacy to teach the people who had hurt her a lesson. She channeled energy that could have saved her life into planning her death and the events that would follow.
I see teens in my private therapy practice. Many of them are watching this show, which makes suicide dangerously relatable and depicts it as a form of self-expression. I fear we are going to see a surge in teen suicidality.
She suggests that parents, whose children have already seen the show, use it as a way to discuss the topic of suicide and to explore their child’s thinking on the subject.
13 Reasons Why raises a lot of serious issues worth discussing, but it dangerously romanticizes suicide and elevates it to a heroic act. Though Netflix does not release ratings data, it is the most-tweeted-about television show of 2017, making it clear this is a cultural phenomenon.
Since your kids may have watched it already, use it to talk to them about bullying, depression, feelings of isolation, and suicidality. Ask them what they think about choosing to end one’s life and what they would do if they felt hopeless. Offer them counseling, whether it’s the guidance counselor at school, a community counseling center, a private practice therapist, or a teen group.
Netflix recently announced, despite concerns, the show has been renewed for a third season in 2019.
What You Can Do
The recent deaths by suicide of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have led more people to be aware of the threat suicide poses. It is now the 10th leading cause of death in America and is on the rise in nearly every state in the country. Twenty-five states saw an increase in suicides of 30% or more from 1999 to 2016.
Resources are available 24 hours a day to help those in crisis. But many people suffering from depression, hopelessness, social isolation and despair are unable to seek help for themselves. If you know someone who you believe needs help, make the effort yourself to connect them with the people ready and able to help.
You might be the person who makes the difference.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis or has suicidal feelings, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline if you or anyone you know is at risk: 1-800-273-8255. Suicide warning signs are listed here.