Copycat Suicide Awareness

rip-robin-williamsAccording to the National Association of Suicidology, there were 39,518 suicides reported in 2011, which equates to 108.3 suicides per day in the United States. A 2012 SAMHSA study reported 987,950 annual suicide attempts in the United States, which translates to one every 32 seconds. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention pointed out that “90% of people who die by suicide have a potentially treatable mental disorder at the time of their death – a disorder that often has gone unrecognized and untreated.”  Depression affects more than 350 million people of all ages and is one of the most common disorders. This included the famous comedian and actor, Robin Williams, who committed suicide in his California home on August 11, 2014. Investigators released that he hung himself from his bedroom door. The released details of Williams’ death triggered a controversy over the effects it will have to the public. I think the media needs to cut all graphic details of any high-profile person’s death to prevent the possibility of copycat suicides.

One way to understand copycat suicides is to understand the reasons behind suicide. A person’s cause of death is not suicide, instead it is several psychological factors that lead up to the action. Alex Lickerman, M.D. listed six general reasons for a person to kill themselves. The person could be depressed, psychotic, impulsive, crying out for help, have a philosophical wish to die, or have made a big mistake. Out of the six, the most common is depression.  The disorder causes the person to suffer greatly and function poorly in day-to-day life. In a typical episode, a person experiences a depressed mood, loss of interest and enjoyment, and reduced energy. Many people suffer from decreased appetite, disturbed sleep, anxiety, and feelings of guilt and self-worth. If not handled appropriately, depression can lead to suicide.

“Robin Williams was sober but was struggling with depression, anxiety, and the early stages of Parkinson’s disease when he died,” said his widow Susan Schneider. One psychologist, Dr. Judy Kuriansky, attempted to dissect Robin Williams’ reasons for suicide. She recalled that he approached her at a New York City Greek restaurant and said, “Oh, Dr. Judy, I need a psychologist.” She responded, “Call me anytime.” Half of her thought he was joking, but the other half was aware of his history of emotional issues. Dr. Kuriansky knew Williams was recovering from drugs and battling with depression. She continued her analysis by mentioning that the addition of a physical disease that affects your movements, such as Parkinson’s, could lead to a drastic action like suicide. Parkinson’s disease is a fatal blow to a performer like Williams, who depends on his fluid speech and movements. In her psychoanalytic point of view, “Williams choice to hang himself and cut off his own breath with his belt could be interpreted as cutting off his speech as symbolic of the very source of his talent; thus, committing an ultimate act of self-destruction, literally and figuratively, by silencing his voice.” 

I believe due to Robin Williams’ high-profile status and the simplicity of his method of suicide, the media needs to limit their graphic details of his death. In the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, there were several examples of copycat suicide listed. In 1774, Goeth’s novel The Sorrow of Young Man Werther triggered multiple imitative suicides in Italy, Leipzig, and Copenhagen. The story was about a hero committing suicide due to a failed love affair. The term Werther Effect means copycat suicide. The largest possible copycat suicide was the after the death of movie star Marilyn Monroe. There was an additional 303 suicides during the month of her death in August 1962. The suicidal rate increased by 12% compared to the typical 2.51% increase in a general high publicized stories in a month of media coverage. In 1994, rock star Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Psychologist Steve Rumble said, “There were so many copycats after that.” These examples prove that the public, especially those with depression, are vulnerable to celebrity suicides.

Kimble Richardson, a licensed mental health counselor at Community Health Network, said, “a less resilient person might view Williams’ death and think: ‘Wow, if he had everything and couldn’t help himself, where does that leave me?’” Studies showed that well known people trigger a greater degree of identifications than stories about suicides of other people. The number of networks showing coverage of the suicide can also affect chances of suicide. The stories shown in one network were 84% less likely to find copycat suicides compared to those shown on multiple networks. The medium of coverage can affect the Werther Effect. Newspaper suicide stories was 82% more likely to trigger a copycat suicides than televised stories. The reason was because people can save, reread, display it on their wall or mirror, and study the newspaper. In comparison, televised stories may run for less than 20 seconds and be easily forgotten. For these reasons, the media needs to be precarious on what information is released to the public.

There is research showing the younger generations are prone to copying celebrities. Mother Malia Jacobson wrote about how celebrities are impressionable to children, teens, and young adults alike. She lists that “a 2006 study by USA Weekend found that half of teens agree that peers are more likely to smoke or drink because they see celebrities do it.” The same magazine found that 13% of teens dieted to make themselves look more like a celebrity. University of Calgary’s research found that 60% of college students admitted that a celebrity had influenced their beliefs, attitudes and personal values. These numbers prove that celebrities’ choices affects the younger generation, and the media should filter their information given to the public.

The consequences of a failed suicide are severe. There is a variety of methods celebrities use to commit suicide. Lee Thompson Young, lead actor in “The Famous Jett Jackson,” committed suicide by a gunshot wound in the head. Gia Allemand, reality TV star, hung herself using a vacuum cord. Kurt Cobain overdosed and left-behind a suicide note. All of these methods have horrible consequences if they fail. Kevin Caruso wrote a list of Attempted Suicide Horrors for website A person named Martin shot himself in the head with a revolver. He now suffers from brain damages after the failed attempt. Steven tried to hang himself, and suffers from extensive brain damage. Donna thought the easiest way to die was to overdose on pills. Her mother found her and brought her to the hospital. She went into a coma and now deals with internal organ and brain damage. There is a median of about six to 32 survivors of suicide per successful suicide. The high numbers of suicide attempts should urge the media to find better methods to report celebrities’ method of suicide.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated suicides costs society about $34.6 billion a year in combined medical and work loss costs. They also reported that the average suicide costs $1,061,170. However, the greatest cost are the effects suicide has on their loved ones. They will experience intense emotions such as shock, anger, guilt and despair. The suicide victim’s family and friends will have to a find a way to deal with their grief. Some of them will be reluctant to talk about what happened for the fear of condemnation. Others will feel that they have failed, because of the path the suicide victim has chosen. The aftermath of a suicide is not simple. There are many consequences that affects family, friends, and the rest of society.

There are those who argue covering up details of dead celebrities is not right. Robin Abcarian, from the Los Angeles Times, believed that William is a public figure and that the public deserves to know how he died. If Williams used a gun, she argued the public needs to know how he obtained it, whether it was legal, and whether something could have been done to prevent him from having it. She believed that their jobs as reporters should tell the truth without glamorizing antisocial behavior. Her ending quote was “The problem, of course, is that glamorization is in the eye of the beholder.”

The benefits to a public figure’s death is the increase of depression and suicide awareness. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw its greatest number of calls on Monday after Robin Williams’ death. Aaron Krasner, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut, mentioned that about three-quarters of his patients wanted to talk about Williams’ death. Other celebrities joined in to create mental health awareness after Robin Williams’ death. Lady Gaga wrote on her Twitter account, “…Please reach out to if you are struggling with depression, mental illness or addiction. You are not alone.” Rock legend Alice Cooper wrote “#RobinWilliams gone. If you struggle with #depression SEE a doc! (sic)” on his Twitter. Celebrities and media sometimes go in the right direction and help reach out those in need. However this can be done without releasing gruesome details of a high-profile person’s death.

The media coverage of a public figure can impact the audience in a positive or negative way. The World Health Organization (WHO) have written a preventing suicide document for media professionals. They recognized that certain types of news coverage may increase suicidal behavior in a vulnerable population. There is also a possibility that the media makes suicide seem “normal.” WHO recommended minimum coverage on celebrity suicides. Also, talking about the method used by the celebrity along with the site of suicide, such as bridges, cliffs, tall buildings, railways, etc., should not be mentioned. Suicide should not be explained in a simple way, but instead should be described in complex interactions of many factors. Suicide should not be used as method of coping, and the reporters need to talk about the consequences of non-fatal attempts. The World Health Organization’s bottom line was to not glorify a celebrity’s death. As mentioned before, the vulnerable population is prone to copy a celebrity’s suicide.

The awareness of depression and suicide is the key to saving future lives. I think the World Health Organization’s preventing suicide document is important for media reporters and writers to use. Also, I believe the consciousness of the information they relay to the public is essential for copycat suicide prevention. The vulnerable population has multiple factors that can trigger a suicide. Sometimes death seems like the easy way out, especially when a celebrity does it. Even as a regular person, we must watch for signs of depression and suicide in our friends and family. Hopefully with the right amount of support, we can save another person’s life. If you have any suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). There is always help for those who wish to seek it.


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