Suicides across the US increased by 10 percent after Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014 — particularly among middle-aged men and due to the same method that Williams used.
It is well-known that a high-profile celebrity suicide can lead to copycat suicides. (The effect has been traced back to a spike after the publication of J.W. von Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which featured a suicide.) Today’s study, however, is the first to examine this effect in the 24-hour news cycle. Using data from the Centers for Disease Control, researchers examined monthly suicide rates by sex, age, and method from January of 1999 to December of 2015. In a normal year, there would be 16,800 suicides from August to December. But after Williams died, the number rose to about 18,700 in that same period — and the increases per month remained consistent in 2015. Notably, there was a 32 percent increase in suffocate suicides — the same method Williams used — compared to a 3 percent rise in other methods, and the group most affected were men aged 30 to 44. The results were published in the journal PLoS One.
By using the Bloomberg Terminal news trend function, the researchers confirmed that news reports with words like “suicide” and “death” increased after Williams’ death. In the months after, there were also more posts in the SuicideWatch subreddit, they write. They add that, while it’s impossible to determine for sure that Williams’ suicide and related coverage caused these increases, the data shows a convincing parallel, and that the constant news cycle may be accelerating the effect of copycat suicides. In contrast, for example, Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide did not result in a great number of copycat suicides.
The World Health Organization has long had media guidelines for reporting on suicide. Other guides include recommendations such as avoiding sensationalized headlines and using work photos instead of photos of grieving family or memorials. Still, many headlines covering the news flouted these guidelines, focused on the method of death, or his funeral. Given that it’s possible the news cycle with its relentless coverage is making these issues worse, it’s important for journalists to take these guidelines seriously.
If you are feeling suicidal or in need of help, please call the National Suicide Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255.