Irresponsible news coverage about the method of suicide probably didn't help.
A new study shows that suicides increased in the months following Robin Williams’s death from suicide on August 11, 2014. In fact, suicides were almost 10 percent higher than predicted by statistical models, and this increase could have been impacted by extensive media coverage of the actor's death.
Though the increase was not confined to any one gender or age group, the highest number of excess suicides were among men and people ages 30 to 44. (Williams was 63 when he died.) In addition, suicides using the same method (suffocation, which was extensively covered in the media) increased 32 percent over expected numbers, while deaths from other methods increased 3 percent.
For their analysis, researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on monthly US suicide rates from January 1999 to December 2015. The data included sex, age, and cause of death. Using statistical analysis, they modeled the expected number of monthly suicide deaths, then compared the estimates to the actual reported numbers. From August to December 2014, the model predicted 16,849 deaths. In actuality, there were 18,690 suicide deaths—an excess of 1,841 cases, or a 9.85 percent increase. The study is published in PLOS ONE.
“If you just look at the graph, you can see something is happening here,” David S. Fink, the study’s lead author and a professor of epidemiology at Columbia, tells Tonic. He explained how researchers created their model, then tested it on the previous year’s numbers to assess its robustness. After seeing good results, they then compared the model’s results with actual numbers following Williams’ death, and saw the marked increase.
It’s possible that some other underlying cause affected the number of suicide deaths over that period, Fink acknowledges. The study describes a parallel between an increase in suicides following the actor’s death, particularly using the same method, but that doesn’t prove there’s a causal connection.
But the researchers also examined the news reporting after Williams’ death, and concluded that “media guidelines for suicide reporting were not followed.” The World Health Organization guidelines say that news outlets should not focus on the details and method of suicide deaths, for example. (Here'a a one-page summary.) Yet The New York Times headline read, “Robin Williams Died by Hanging, Official Says”—and that was not an isolated case. The sheriff assigned to the case gave a press conference in which he carefully detailed the belt used in Williams’ death, the position of his body, and marks on his wrist, all of which were duly reported.
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The analysis provides support for what’s called “the Werther effect,” when a well-publicized suicide leads to more suicides. Fink says, to his knowledge, this is the first study that examines how a high-profile suicide may affect the population in the age of 24-hour news: Using Bloomberg Terminal’s news trend function, the researchers quantified reporting about suicide and Williams’ death compared to news reports from June 2013 to January 2015.
Social media, of course, is part of that ecosystem, and the current study can’t account for how people may have posted about Williams’ death and what they said—it only examines media coverage. Understanding the role social media may play is an important question. Overall, Fink says, there’s a “lack of information we have about the effects of living in today’s world, i.e., a world where people are inundated with media, from a variety of different sources, throughout the entire day.”
Fink says research suggests responsible reporting can reduce deaths following celebrity suicides. That means, for example, avoiding sensationalized headlines, detailing the methods used, speculating about motives, and portraying suicide as a relief. It also means providing support in stories about suicide for readers who may be at risk. However, he says this research wasn’t done in the US and is now more than a decade old. “Future research is needed to understand whether responsible media reporting can mitigate the increase, or even reduce the rate, of suicide that has been shown to follow a celebrity suicide,” he says.
He points to the case of late Nirvana singer, Kurt Cobain. “To date, Kurt Cobain’s case is really the anomaly,” he says. Other cases, particularly in Asia, show an increase in suicides after a celebrity death. After Cobain’s suicide, however, media placed a heavy emphasis on intervention and providing people with preventative tools. Research shows that while the expected ‘Werther effect’ didn’t materialize in Seattle, where Cobain lived, more people called crisis hotlines. A study in Hong Kong also suggested that responsible reporting can blunt the Werther effect.
“It’s one of the most difficult issues. I’ve worked in suicide prevention for almost a decade now,” Fink says. It’s a complex and ever-evolving area, he explains, and research continues to improve how we talk about suicide, to mitigate as much unnecessary death as possible. Suicide is a social phenomenon on some level, but with responsible reporting, high-profile suicides don’t have to spawn a copycat effect.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.
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