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Media coverage of suicide can be dangerous: An expert weighs in

By Leah Groth ; Updated June 13, 2018

In June 2018 we lost fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain to suicide. Now mental health experts are concerned about what they’re calling a “potential suicide contagion,” a phenomenon in which a rise of suicidal behaviors can be attributed to the suicide death of others.

“Suicide contagion is when one suicide generates other suicides, triggered by the first,” vice president of research for the American Federation of Suicide Prevention Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Ph.D., tells LIVESTRONG.COM. “This is a particular issue with the media because of the widespread nature of information, but it can also happen at the community level with a local suicide, depending on how the information is shared.”

As these recent numbers show, suicide contagion is a very real and serious thing: According to Frances Gonzalez, director of communications at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, counselors at its crisis centers handled 65 percent more calls since the deaths of Spade and Bourdain. Spokeswoman Liz Eddy says the Crisis Text Line also saw a 116 percent increase in volume — similar to patterns she noticed after the deaths of Robin Williams in 2014 and singer Chester Bennington in 2017.

Here’s how suicide contagion happens, according to Dr. Harkavy-Friedman: When a death by suicide occurs, whether at a national level or just local, information can be shared in irresponsible ways. This can include sensationalizing details about the suicide itself, what triggered it or the method the individual used. “While most people will be fine when they read or hear about a suicide, at-risk or vulnerable people might identify with it, perhaps thinking, ‘I should do this too.’” However, she points out, there is always an alternative to suicide, “but their brain isn’t working so they can come up with it.”

She explains that romanticizing suicide — suggesting the individual was offered relief by their suicide, that their situation was hopeless and they had no other options or by focusing on the aftermath and events that happen in the community after the death — is especially dangerous for at-risk individuals.

Dr. Harkavy-Friedman offers the scenario of William Shakespeare’s tragic play “Romeo and Juliet” as an example. After Romeo takes his own life out of the hopelessness of his belief that Juliet is dead, she is seemingly inspired by his action and takes her own life as well — drinking the very same poison he did. The way their desperate love story has been portrayed in the media glamorizes suicide in a way that might inspire other people, who feel deeply in love and helpless, to do the same. “It’s really important to avoid talking about the details and how a suicide took place,” she adds. “If you are talking about what happened and the details, you are romanticizing it.”

If you aren’t convinced about the validity of suicide contagions, science totally backs it up. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE in February of this year found that in the four months following the 2014 death of actor Robin Williams by suicide, there was a 9.85 percent increase in suicides — the equivalent of an additional 1,841 deaths — in the United States alone. Additionally, researchers found the connection was particularly strong when it came to middle-aged men (ages 30 to 44) using the same method as Williams.

According to the World Health Organization, a staggering 800,000 take their own lives every year, which amounts to one person every 40 seconds. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that suicide rates in the United States have risen by nearly 30 percent since 1999, with mental health conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder, being one of several factors contributing to it. In 2016 alone, nearly 45,000 suicides occurred in the United States, 70 percent were men, half of whom didn’t have any known mental health conditions. Sadly, it is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

So what can we do to prevent a suicide contagion from occurring? In addition to responsibly sharing information after an event occurs, Dr. Harkavy-Friedman stresses the importance of reaching out to people you care about or believe may be at risk in addition to sharing stories of hope and resilience. “Just like a suicide can be contagious, so can hope,” she explains. She emphasizes that talking about suicide is key and that “it should never be a secret.”

Why? Because it happens, and many people are struggling with suicidal thoughts themselves. So while it’s important that everyone is educated about it, “it’s how people talk about it and share information” that can be the game changer. For example, don’t just share or discuss a suicide story with the facts and details. It’s important to offer hope by suggesting ways to prevent it and options for people who are thinking about it themselves.

According to the America Federation of Suicide Prevention, of you suspect someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, these are the warning signs to look out for:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or reckless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings 

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

What Do YOU Think?

Were you aware of the phenomenon of suicide contagion? Why do you think the suicide deaths of public figures influences others to follow in their footsteps? How do you think we can prevent it from happening?

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