Suicide Breeds Suicide

by Dish Staff

Earlier this year, Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, spelled out how killing yourself makes it more likely that others will take their own lives:

In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, Steven Stack reviews research on suicide contagion:

[T]here have been more than 100 empirical investigations of copycat suicide. A review of 419 findings from the first 55 investigations showed that only 35.8 per cent documented an increase in suicide after media coverage. Given that most evidence is not consistent with a copycat effect, a search for the conditions under which a story may elicit imitative suicides has been a key theme in this work.

The most important factor distinguishing studies that report a copycat effect from the ones that do not is whether or not a celebrity is involved. In particular, copycat effects are most likely to be reported in work focused on two distinct types of celebrities: those in politics and entertainment. The analysis of those 419 findings found that studies based on either or both of these subtypes were 5.27 times more likely to report an increase in suicides following coverage.

But he theorizes that “Williams’s gender could conceivably prevent a record number of copycat deaths”:

The more Williams’s suicide is discussed, if all else is equal, the greater the odds of a copycat effect. It is, however, doubtful that the impact will be as great as that of Monroe or Choi. They killed themselves at the peaks of their careers and popularity. In addition, the review of 419 findings in 55 studies determined that research that focuses on female suicide rates was 4.89 times more likely to find a copycat effect than other research.

Margot Sanger-Katz explains how to ethically cover suicides:

Few of the experts’ recommendations make much sense in the case of Mr. Williams. Studies suggest avoiding repetitive or prominent coverage; keeping the word suicide out of news headlines; and remaining silent about the means of suicide. “How can it not be prominent?” [professor Madelyn] Gould said.

Experts also say articles should include information about how suicide can be avoided (for instance, noting that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255).

They also recommend avoiding coverage that describes death as an escape for a troubled person.

Bill Gardner adds:

So how should journalists report on suicides? The public interest is best served by simply reporting that a person has died by suicide, with no additional details provided. If that’s too much to ask, then at least such details should not be placed in headlines or featured in a way that calls attention to them. This guidance is found in many ethical standards for journalists.

Williams’ suicide has also prompted a lot of constructive journalism about suicide prevention. I am all for that: suicide prevention is one of my research areas. But the most important thing to do is to find more effective treatments for the cause of many suicides: depression. And to find these treatments we need to be conducting more mental health research.

A reader response to Hecht’s video is here. More Dish on suicide contagion here.